Most of his collection consisted of music from the swing era, as might be expected from someone of his generation. He had quite a bit of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and several recordings by my personal favorite, Spike Jones. But I only recall him having two recordings by Artie Shaw. There was his first hit record, Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine, and Frenesi, by the Mexican composer Alberto Dominguez. I recall reading a quote Shaw gave many years after he retired from music in 1954, giving one of his reasons for his early departure from the scene. He said that the only songs audiences wanted to hear him play were those two. In fact, he had come to doubt his ability ever to achieve what he wanted in music, so he simply quit playing. Legions of far lesser talents, alas, have ever since failed to follow his example.
Despite his fifty year absence, Artie Shaw's music is still around. It appears to be impossible for any documentary filmmaker working on a project about World War II for any cable television channel not to include Frenesi, at the least, on some part of the soundtrack. Millions of people not even born when Shaw left music have heard that song, and would recognize it, though probably not by name. Many people who have CD compilations of the music of Billie Holiday probably have records by Artie Shaw, without knowing it if they have not read the liner notes. She was his band's vocalist in the late 1930s, and Shaw earned the enmity of many racists for being the first white bandleader to hire a black singer.
I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons my dad didn't have more Artie Shaw records was because my mom disapproved of him- not because of his integrated band, about which she couldn't have cared less, but because of his reputation as a rounder. Shaw was married eight times, and among his various wives were both Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Whenever my dad played one of his records, my mom would never fail to make a remark about Shaw's serial polygamy, and the constant rumors of affairs during the interstices between his marriages. This may be why we heard much more music from the various other bands than from Artie Shaw on those long ago Saturday afternoons.
Most of the leaders of big bands died while I was growing up, and a few before I was born, and I had long been under the impression that Artie Shaw was among that number. Then, in the mid-1980s, a friend of mine said that she had met him a few weeks before at a party. He was well into his seventies at the time, but still energetic, and still enjoyed flirting with the women. My friend described him as still quite good looking, and very funny. Since then, I've seen him pop up on television from time to time, giving interviews or providing comments in documentaries such as Ken Burns' Jazz. It began to look as though he was indestructible. Perhaps retiring from music at an early age was good for him. He died yesterday at 94, long after most of his rival bandleaders were gone.
I was amused by the final paragraph of the biography at his official web site:
As Artie Shaw goes on into his nineties, he has also developed a crusty humor, as evidenced by an epitaph for himself he wrote for Who's Who in America a few years ago at the request of the editors: "He did the best he could with the material at hand." However, at a recent lecture to the music students of the University of Southern California, when someone mentioned having read it, Shaw said, "Yeah, but I've been thinking it over and I've decided it ought to be shorter, to make it more elegant." And after a brief pause, "I've cut it down to two words: 'Go away.'"
OK, Artie, I've said all I'll say. I'll go away, and listen to my CDs of those songs that drove you to early retirement. I still like them as much as I did when I first heard them, scratchy and base-heavy, from 78RPM records on that old Silvertone.