In 1949, Artie Shaw needed money. He would later claim the cash infusion was sought to help settle back taxes owed. But alimony payments to novelist Kathleen Winsor, whom he had just divorced, were certainly a financial drain. Just a year earlier, Shaw had vowed never again to front a dance band, carping about having to play Stardust night after night. And yet in August 1949, for a number of pragmatic reasons, Shaw assembled one of the finest orchestras of his career. It's well documented on Artie Shaw: The Complete Thesaurus Transcriptions 1949 (Hep).
Shaw's so-called "fast-money band" of '49 is one of my favorites. It features a staggering lineup of musicians along with smart, modern arrangements that finally placed Shaw's clarinet in a post-war setting. His playing, mostly in the lower register, is jaunty and romantic without being over the top in either mode. Best of all, performances by the band's sidemen mirror Shaw's sophisticated style—though you feel Shaw being pulled into a new approach by their polished attack.
Eager to erase his tax debt and ease his alimony burden as quickly as possible, Shaw agreed to record 50 songs from his new and updated book of charts for Thesaurus, a transcription service owned by RCA, which meant its radio network NBC.
Back in the late 40s—before television and the web—radio was the only way to reach millions of consumers nationwide instantly. By 1949, most stations in the U.S. were playing records to fill time and featuring less and less live music. Included among the types of records stations played were radio transcriptions. These were oversized shellac discs that held extensive amounts of music—far exceeding the roughly three minutes available on 78-rpms sold at the retail level.
Transcriptions were used for two primary purposes: First, these jumbo recordings could be used by radio networks for replay in different time zones. For example, a network could play the transcription disc for East Coast audiences at 8 p.m. and then for the West Coast three hours later when it was 8 p.m. there. Second, a transcription service could lease the recordings to smaller stations—allowing a small station in Texas, for example, to broadcast a star band in its market. At the time, Thesaurus was one of four major transcription services.
After forming his new band in New York in August 1949, Shaw toured for four months, which was the best way to get a collection of musicians to gel. In late December, Shaw began recording for Thesaurus, and over seven sessions lasting until January 6, all 50 tracks were completed.
So who was in this superior Shaw band? For the most part, it consisted of Don Fagerquist [pictured], Don Paladino, Dale Pierce, Victor Ford (tp), Ange Callea, Porky Cohen, Sonny Russo, Fred Zito (tb), Artie Shaw (cl,arr), Herbie Steward, Frank Socolow (as) Al Cohn and Zoot Sims (ts), Danny Bank (bar), Gil Barrios (p), Jimmy Raney (g), Dick Nivison (b) and Irv Kluger (d), with a few vocals by Pat Lockwood. There were personnel swaps along the way.
Shaw's arranging team for the band included Gene Roland, Johnny Mandel, Tadd Dameron, John Bartee, Roger Segure, Paul Jordan, Ray Conniff, George Russell and Eddie Sauter. Earlier arrangements were used as well and, in some cases, updated. Though Al Cohn [pictured] has been credited in the past with writing arrangements for the band, none were recorded, according to James Langon's liner notes. Johnny Mandel told me that Shaw loved Cohn's playing so much that he would never follow one of his solos, preferring to let the sound of the saxophonist's lines linger rather than eclipse them with his clarinet.
Among the standout arrangements are Gene Roland's Smooth 'n' Easy, Aesop's Foibles and I Get a Kick Out of You and Johnny Mandel's Krazy Kat, Innuendo and So In Love. Two other beauts are Tadd Dameron's So Easy and Fred's Delight. Here, we have a perfect marriage of Dameron's patient romantic-bop lines paired with Shaw's weaving blue clarinet. Gorgeous.
Harry Rodgers' earlier chart for I Only Have Eyes for You features intricate writing, and Shaw all but uses his clarinet to ballroom-dance his way through the melody and his conceived harmonies. Love Is the Sweetest Thing (Johnny Thompson), Time on My Hands (David Rose) and Things Are Looking Up (George Siravo) are completely out of control. Shaw was never more seductive and enchanting than on these three. [Pictured: Ava Gardner and Artie Shaw]
And yes, there's even Stardust (Lenny Hayton), with what sounds to me like a Fagerquist trumpet solo.
So why did Shaw fold a perfect band? Other than an enthusiastic response in Chicago at the Blue Note, audiences at other venues were hostile. According to Shaw, in Tom Nolan's Three Chords for Beauty's Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw:
"If you've got a band that you know is the best band in the state of the art at the time, and the audience is going like this [holding its nose] to you—or making signals like they're pulling a toilet chain—you know you're on the wrong track. And that was arguably the best band of its time, I think. But—the audience would not have it. They stayed away in great masses. How can you pay for a band, then? And—it was a helluva band! If the public had the slightest interest in it, I would have stayed with it, but—there was no way."
All of which provides insight into Shaw's thinking as an artist. Shaw always started out optimistic about the mass market's intelligence level, only to wind up crushed and disgusted by their lack of taste. He wasn't wrong. [Photo above by William P. Gottlieb]
JazzWax tracks: Artie Shaw: The Complete Thesaurus Transcriptions 1949 (Hep) can be found at iTunes and Amazon here. If you love Artie Shaw, as I do, and find you adore this stuff from the samples, I would suggest buying the CD. The detailed notes are worth the extra cost.
JazzWax pages: Tom Nolan's Three Chords for Beauty: The Life of Artie Shaw (2010) can be found at Amazon here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Johnny Mandel's Krazy Kat for Artie Shaw, recorded at Thesaurus in New York on December 28, 1949. Dig Al Cohn and Zoot Sims trading solos on this flag-waver...