YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 5)

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."

So Chuck Peterson is slowing down the band, and one night on the way to the Cornell prom, we're in the bus and I'm in my seat and I call Chuck over. Chuck and I were friends--I knew all the guys in the band. We knew each other well. He's 22 or 23 and I'm 28. [He's a] very good lead trumpet player--I trained him. He wasn't much before he joined my band. Nobody knew him. I trained Johnny Best, Les Robinson, Bernie Previn; these guys speak very highly of me on the liner notes of RCA's "Complete" Artie Shaw record package.

I called Chuck over and he sat down with me.

"Chuck," I said, "we've got to have a serious talk."

"What's up, man?" he said.

"Well," I said, "you're lagging. You're doing something wrong."

"No, man, what're you talking about?" he said.

"Come on, Chuck. You're smoking too much of that s---. You gotta cut down."

"No, I'm not," he said. "It makes me play better."

"No, you think you're playing better," I said. "You're not. I'm out here listening, and it's slowing down. You're lagging. It's not working. I've gone to you many times and given you the beat to show you, bring it up, and you can't do it. You're not hearing right. Your head is befuddled."

"Oh, come on, man," he said.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," I said. "I'll make you a deal. How many joints do you smoke a night?"

"Well, I have a bomb before I start, and then at intermission I get another one--not a full bomb, but a little one."

"OK," I said. "I'll do it tonight. Give me what you smoke." Because I used to smoke when I was a kid--18, 17, 19--running around the country playing like he was playing in my band. So I said, "Lemme have it. I'll smoke it right in front of you before we go on, and during intermission I'll do it again. And if I play better, we'll both turn on from now on--every night."

"Hey, you've gotta deal," he said. He liked that, that was fun: The boss is gonna get loaded and swing, right?

That night he gave me this bomb and I smoked it, and I got up on that stand and I was feeling no pain at all. When intermission came, I said, "Gimme the other one." He gave it to me, I smoked it, and I was playing over my head. I was hearing s--- I'd never heard before in those same old arrangements.

I finished and turned to him. "You win," I said.

"No, man," he said. "I lose."

He had been giving me incredulous looks during the evening and I thought he was thinking, "Man, this guy is blowing his head off." I was hearing great things. But the technical ability to do it--it's like driving drunk. You feel great, but you don't know what you're doing.

At least he was honest about it.


I was this little, insecure kid. Nothing I did could have been much, because I did it. I was the outlander who was suddenly let into the magic kingdom. It was an education. I had to learn what the world was. I was a naive little Lower East Side Jewish kid whose name became Artie Shaw. But I was Arthur Arshawsky living in there, and I didn't know what I was doing.

I first met Lana on the set of "Dancing Co-Ed," in which I played myself. I was standing on the bandstand and we were introduced--she was about to do a dance number and I was about to play. As a joke, I said, "You better be nice to me or I'll screw up your tempos."

And Lana looked up, dead serious, and said: "You better not!"

She didn't get it. She was peeved. I thought, "This girl's a little dumb." We made the movie and I forgot about her. I didn't see her again until a couple years later when [actor] Phil Silvers came over to my house one day and took me onto the set of the movie she was making.

There she was, coming down a staircase in this little green-silk dress that fit her like she'd been born in it. When the scene was over, she came out to us, and Phil "introduced" us. I wonder now if he didn't have some mischief in mind, knowing I'd already met her. She looked absolutely incredible in that dress. And this time she was very sweet to me, laughing and kidding around. She didn't seem to remember we hadn't hit it off. And I asked her out.

So I'm with this glamorous creature; she was in my car; we'd had dinner. I looked at her. The world was in love with Lana Turner. And there she was, saying she'd like to have a home and kiddies, too. That was why the game of chicken began.

"You don't mean it," I said. "You're just saying that, about how you don't want the glamorous film career, you want a home and kiddies."

And I didn't want my career, unless I could make it worthwhile and have somebody to come home to, a family. Somebody to do it for and make it worthwhile.

"Well, why don't we do it?" I was saying it for kicks, not thinking she was serious. "Why don't we do it? What would you say if I said, 'Let's do it?' "

"I'd say, 'Yes,' " she said.

"Oh, come on."

"No, I mean it."

"You don't mean it. You're kidding me."

"No, I'm not. Try me."

"All right, I'll try you," I said. "Let's go."

"You mean it?"


Now I'm looking, thinking to myself, "She's going to say no, so what the hell, why not keep going?"

Los Angeles Times Articles