By mid-1945, Artie Shaw was facing two creative crises. With the sudden proliferation of small record labels, RCA began pressuring the bandleader for Frenesi-sized hits. Then Roy Eldridge, the band's jazz trumpeter, wanted out. Frustrated in his role as a mere section player, Eldridge sought more solo time and found Shaw's band tedious and stifling. Even Shaw could read the writing on the wall: the band he had assembled in the fall of 1944 was likely reaching its peak and nearing an end.
But the band's final months were its most exciting. By mid-August, bookings for the band were drying up on the West Coast, and little was lined up for the fall. Then, at month's end, Shaw was asked by the military to appear at several bases and hospitals in Southern California. Sponsored by Coca-Cola, Shaw's performances were recorded by the Armed Forces Radio Service as part of its Spotlight Band Show for airplay at military installations overseas. Between September and November 1945, Shaw's 17-piece band performed at six different facilities.
All of these recordings have just been issued on Artie Shaw: The Complete 1945 Spotlight Band Broadcasts (Hep Records). The double-CD set is quite remarkable for several reasons: Up until now, there hasn't been a comprehensive package of Spotlight appearances by this Shaw band. And even though Eldridge is heard soloing only on Little Jazz and two of this set's Gramercy Five tracks, you still get quite an earful from a powerhouse trumpet section comprised of Stan Fishelson, George Schwartz, Bernie Glow and Eldridge. When Eldridge left the band in mid-September 1945 to form his own band, he was replaced by Ray Linn, who was no slouch. Though this band was primarily Shaw's last ensemble dance band, there were standouts among its ranks, including tenor saxophonist Herbie Steward, pianist Dodo Marmarosa and a 22-year-old Barney Kessel.
The fidelity of this Spotlight set is marvelous and somewhat miraculous. All of the tracks are clean and bright. No matter how high I cranked up the volume on my system, Shaw kept sounding better and better. In addition, there's virtually no surface noise. The more I listened to the set, the more I realized how great this short period was for the clarinetist. His playing was fluid and warm, and his flare for musical tension and release on these tracks was superb.
Among the must-hear tracks is a punchy reworking of Lennie Hayton's [pictured] arrangement of I Can't Get Started, featuring a fine solo by trumpeter Linn. Can't You Read Between the Lines features an ice-blue Shaw solo at medium tempo. There's also a hopping S'Wonderful arranged by Ray Conniff with terrific solos by Shaw and Steward. Best of all, though, is a stunning reed-heavy Night and Day and a rip-roaring Let's Walk.
The 1944-45 Shaw band was something of a swing-era holdout. By this point more muscular and adventurous bands led by Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Boyd Raeburn were gaining ground. Despite clinging to the past, Shaw's 1945 band was a well-oiled group that Leonard Feather said exhibited "a refreshing lack of bad taste and bombast."
In October 1945, Shaw married Ava Gardner and about a month later folded the band. He also decided not to renew his RCA Victor contract. Newlywed Shaw wanted a break, but the honeymoon didn't last long. By early 1946, Shaw was assembling and rehearsing a 40-piece orchestra complete with woodwinds and strings. He soon signed with Musicraft Records and by April finally was able to achieve his vision of a moodier, more Impressionistic sound. He also tapped into the arranging skills of Lennie Hayton, Sonny Burke and Dick Jones. Joined on tracks by Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones, Shaw in 1946 would lead one of his most ambitious and romantic bands.
But just prior to this supersized venture, Shaw fronted his final dance band, and the results as evidenced by this Spotlight set continue to hold up well. [Photo of Ava Gardner and Artie Shaw in 1945, Corbis]
JazzWax tracks: Artie Shaw: The Complete 1945 Spotlight
Band Broadcasts is available as a download at iTunes or on CD here. The album includes fine, detailed notes by Alastair Robertson, owner of Hep Records.