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Inside Story

Artie Shaw Talking

Writer Aram Saroyan converses with The Legendary Clarinetist and Big-Band Leader about Living High and Playing High--and His Despicable Uncle Moishe

August 06, 2000|ARAM SAROYAN | Aram Saroyan's last article for the magazine was about growing up in Beverly Hills during the 1950s. His books include "Last Rites," a memoir of his father, writer William Saroyan, and, most recently, "Day and Night: Bolinas Poems."

In the early 1940s, Artie Shaw, at the height of his fame as a swing bandleader and clarinetist, introduced my father and mother. In the 1960s, long after he had put down the clarinet for good, he published a book, "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!" comprising three novellas, the middle one of which is a fictionalized account of my parents' relationship. I read it, found it interesting, and Shaw himself even more interesting for his decision to give up his career in music. Shaw's playing had evolved at the same time that the big-band era waned, so the reason he quit has always been an open question. Still, Camus wrote that the man who says "no" says "yes," and there is an enduring mystery in such figures as Duchamp, to take another example, who stake out a position at the borderline between art and life, creation and reality.

Years later, I put Shaw's name on the comp list for a book of mine published in 1985. In 1988, when I was living in Thousand Oaks, I noticed that Shaw's address made him my neighbor. I had another book coming out and again added his name to the comp list. When Shaw received the book, he telephoned, and my wife Gailyn and I had dinner with him at an Italian restaurant in Camarillo, where he was well-known. As that evening illustrated, the first and perhaps last thing to be said about Artie Shaw is that he is a nonstop talker, a monologuist, and, at his best, an inspired one. (It occurred to me that his talking might have replaced his playing.)

Afterward, Artie took us back to his house and upstairs to his book-lined study, where he played us his 1941 recording of "Star Dust." It was the first time I'd listened to his music, and his solo was breathtaking, like a beautiful bird swooping through heaven and hell. "Benny Goodman played clarinet," he said that night, "I played music." And then: "Benny never played his dark side."

Eventually, Gailyn and I and Artie and his girlfriend at the time, Midge Hayes, a librarian he had met in Santa Barbara, became quite close. Shaw had written an autobiography, "The Trouble With Cinderella," but it stopped short of his years as a big-band era legend and also told nothing of his celebrated marriages to Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. So one day I invited Artie to lunch to ask him about recording conversations for a biography covering the later part of his life. We began making the recordings. After a while, though, our relationship cooled. I went on to other things and put the tapes and manuscript aside.

Having recently celebrated his 90th birthday, Shaw continues

to be a commanding, contentious, ever-engaged presence, although when I saw him last several weeks ago he was sporting a cane. He has his own Web site,, on which is posted a third-person biographical statement, the actual source of which invites an inevitable suspicion. It includes, for instance, this unquiet summary: "Shaw is regarded by many as the finest and most innovative of all jazz clarinetists, a leader of some of the greatest musical aggregations ever assembled and one of the most adventurous and accomplished figures in American music." Music critic Terry Teachout, writing recently in the New York Times, commented: "You'd have to laugh at such braggadocio, except for one thing--it's all true."

Over the years the tapes remained in my thoughts, and not long ago I pulled them out again. They are, it seems to me, a distillation of Shaw as I knew him, and also offer, I think, a uniquely telling view of both the Hollywood and the music worlds of his day. In the end, they suggest to me an Artie Shaw in the classic line of Jewish storytellers, a parabolist who sometimes brings to mind Nathanael West--as if "The Day of the Locust" were told by a rougher hewn, high-level insider. What follows are three excerpts of Shaw's remembrances.


A guy named Chuck Peterson was my first trumpet player in the first band, the '38 band. He was a viper, always high, always smoking. And my thesis with the band was: Do your job and I don't care what you do off the stand. On that stand, you're a horn. I don't want to see your face; all I want is to hear what's coming out. So you're not going to get praise or credit; I expect you to do what you do. They knew that. They knew I respected the music and I respected them, and I didn't want any B.S. But Chuck was smoking a lot of marijuana, and it finally got to where he was beginning to slow down.

A first trumpet player in a jazz band is like a concertmaster. He sets the tone, he plays the lead. And if he slows down, the whole band lags--first the trumpet section, then the trombones get infected, and pretty soon the virus has spread to the saxes, and everything slows down.

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