You can hear it in virtually everything Artie Shaw recorded in the late 1930s and early and mid-1940s. There, in track after track, is the restlessness, the confidence, the envelope-pushing and the Shangri-La search for a sound only Shaw could hear. Today, it's hard to understand why Shaw grew so peevish and dissatisfied with every band he assembled. Many observers have blamed Shaw's persistent unease and setting of impossible standards as self-loathing brought on by personal frustration and a media-fed superiority complex.
But Shaw's bile wasn't inwardly directed. It was reserved for the system. Shaw loathed the corporate machine that demanded assembly-line production from artists like himself. He detested RCA Victor for intruding into in the creative process. From Shaw's perch, record companies were unconscionable manipulators, and the serial formation of bands can be viewed as cat-and-mouse efforts by Shaw to smarten-up the mass market and outsmart the suits. Shaw believed that the mass market was more intelligent than did the system. He also believe the masses could easily understand and appreciate any form of superb music if it came from the artist's heart, unfiltered by executive know-nothings who thought they knew better.
This tug of war between Shaw and RCA often left Shaw disgruntled. Which is exactly what makes his output in the late 1930s and first half of the 1940s so interesting, especially when studied in chronological order. With the release by Mosaic Records of Classic Artie Shaw Bluebird and Victor Sessions, we now have a box that covers Shaw's studio recordings for the label from 1938 to 1945, allowing us to hear a significant stretch of the Artie Shaw Story neatly assembled in order and restored.
Most of Shaw's albums and collections in the past have been scattered efforts, leaving students of the bandleader feeling as though they were reading stray chapters torn from an important book. This goes for Shaw's own handpicked box compilation in 2001 called Self Portrait. What all past efforts lacked is context, cohesion and chronology.
With the Mosaic box, Shaw's major chapters are assembled and bound in sequence, and what emerges is a fresh rendering of the artist. By listening to Shaw progress through bands launched and folded between 1938 and 1942, and between 1944 and 1945, you hear a creative odyssey that offers music and paradox. Shaw's bands clearly mirrored the times—from the national post-Depression sigh of relief and isolationism to pre-war jitters and post-war jubilation. But as Shaw's commercial power grew, you also hear his creeping disgust with the entertainment industry's canned sentiment and his own boredom with repetition required for success.
The big news with this seven-disc box is that we now have a major section of the Shavian jigsaw puzzle in place. Here, in chronological order (minus the vocal tracks), we have a clear sense of what Shaw heard, what he wanted to achieve as a leader and soloist, and the sounds that excited him most and eventually made him weary. In effect, we join Shaw on his personal hunt for the unachievable and wind up by the end much more satisfied than he was. Through the box's 165 tracks, Shaw becomes a sympathetic creative warrior and a clear champion of taste.
By my count, there are six bands here. There's the 1938 Begin the Beguine band that put Shaw on the map, the 1940 Stardust studio band with strings, the 1940 touring Frenesi band plus strings that Shaw formed after returning from a Mexican respite, and the 1944 'S Wonderful band—a fabulous and often overlooked orchestra with modern swing arrangements. Add two Gramercy Five quintets of 1940 and 1945, and you have six different Shaw units. Unlike Benny Goodman's output during this period, each of Shaw's bands had a completely different personality with a special sound and lots of mood swings.
So which Shaw band stands out? After listening to the box more than 11 times, I'd have to say the little-known 1944-45 band. This takes nothing away from the earlier three orchestras. Shaw's first RCA band is signature, and his bands with strings that followed are gorgeously tender and dramatic. But it's not until the 'S Wonderful band that Shaw starts to sound like he's actually having fun. What hits you instantly is Roy Eldridge's terse playing and the future-forward flair of the band's arrangements, especially on Tin Pan Alley standards.
Interestingly, this band's trombones were often written like a supportive string section, while the reeds function almost like a band within a band. What's more, there are plenty of standout charts: There's Jimmy Mundy's [pictured] Lady Day and Ray Conniff's Jumpin' on the Merry-Go-Ground, 'S Wonderful, September Song and the swaggering Bedford Drive. Or the explosive Little Jazz by Buster Harding. By spring 1945, the arrangements were taken up another notch with Jean Stevenson's But Not For Me and Jimmy Mundy's spectacular Tea for Two, with Eldridge's hot trumpet blazing and a swinging trombone soli. All while Shaw weaves in and out on the coolest, bluest clarinet.
By June 1945, this reed-centric band was at its peak, with Dick Jones' chart for Easy to Love, David Rose's Time on My Hands, George Siravo's A Foggy Day and Ray Conniff's [pictured] These Foolish Things. Then, starting in mid-June, the band was recording only Siravo arrangements, and for good reason. Siravo's pen was fresh, adding prescient zest to The Man I Love, I Could Write a Book, Keeping Myself for You, I Was Doing All Right and I Can't Escape From You. Shaw takes his most stunning solo during this period on Ray Conniff's Lament. And there's a breathtaking I Can't Get Started arranged by Lennie Hayton and Harry Rodgers.
The Shaw output for RCA halted when he entered the navy in 1942 and resumed when Shaw formed the 1944 band after his discharge. The final tracks on the box were recorded in August 1945 but the band continued to play one-nighters on the West Coast. Then in September 1945, Roy Eldridge gave notice. The touring and racism had taken its toll. By October, Shaw was married to Ava Gardner and was growing increasingly fed up with the demands of holding together a band and with RCA Victor's creative intrusions. In mid-October, Shaw broke up the 'S Wonderful band, exactly one year after it was formed. The Shaw bands that would follow starting in 1946 were equally exciting and dramatic. But by then, Shaw was firmly established as an A-list band leader while his personal life was red meat for the gossip columns. The RCA recordings now assembled are a vivid document of the rise and rise of Artie Shaw.
Tomorrow, an interview with Andreas Meyer, who restored and mastered the Artie Shaw box, on the behind-the-scenes process that takes place when taking on a project of this size and scope.
JazzWax tracks: Mosaic Records' Classic Artie Shaw Bluebird and Victor Sessions box set is available here. It starts in July 1938 and runs through August 1945. The liner notes by John McDonough are rich in detail and clear up many mysteries. For the balance of recordings by the Shaw band of 1945 (September and October radio transcriptions), you'll need to grab Artie Shaw: The Complete Spotlight Band 1945 Broadcasts here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Class in Swing, a nifty 1939 Paramount short that explained Artie Shaw's early sound (with a 21-year-old Buddy Rich on drums)...