10. Artie Shaw * The "Complete" Gramercy 5 * 1940-1945
There were many recordings in the running for this final spot in my Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings series. Benny Goodman's Sextet recordings from the 1940s, and later in the 1950s were a worthy contender, as were the performances of Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds in Jelly Roll Morton's 'Red Hot Peppers' sessions of 1926-27. I even flirted with the idea of adding Jimmie Noone's Apex Club recordings. But none of those could dislodge my conviction that Artie Shaw's Gramercy 5 recordings from the 1940s should bookend this list.
Shaw's first Gramercy 5 was unlike any other group in the history of jazz to that point, for at least one odd fact: the group employed a harpsichord instead of a piano. There were at least two reasons for this. First, from his earliest forays into band leading, Shaw pursued a concept he called "chamber jazz" in contrast to the loud bands of the day. Second, the Gramercy 5 recordings had a very specific purpose: they were 'juke tunes', recorded for the booming juke box market. As anyone who grew up in diners with jukeboxes can attest, these devices were very treble-heavy, which accounts in part for the success of 'jangle rock'--treble heavy guitar bands reproduce tolerably well on juke boxes.
The jangling of Shaw's harpsichord (played by Johnny Guarnieri on most of the recordings) presents a tantalizing option of where our culture might have headed if the adolescent phenomenon of rock n' roll hadn't been permitted to lobotomize the nation for commercial reasons. That musing aside, the early Gramercy 5 displays another extremely important aspect of Shaw's art, which is perhaps best called the poetics of jazz--a quality for which the literary-minded clarinetist was virtually unsurpassed in jazz history.
When listening to a Shaw tune, the attentive listener is always hit with extra-musical associations, often built around the lyrics. In the case of a tune like 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes', the lyrics inform the meaning of the performance--Shaw's romantic statement of the theme echoing the narrator's story of love, loss, and regret, while the harpsichord clucks along somewhat cynically-- the 'warning friends' of the lyrics--only softening at the end in sympathy with the reflective Shaw. Anyone who knew the lyrics of this popular song would have felt how perfectly, yet with such economy of means, this tune was expressed.
But this poetic wasn't relegated to standards with lyrics. Shaw's own 'Dr. Livingstone, I Presume' is a humorous trip through the world of Jazz through Artie's eyes. Beginning with 'Jungle beat' tom-toms used so often in every band from Ellington to Goodman, and associated with the African roots of jazz, Shaw eventually rips into a klezmer tinged solo--almost as though he was greeting Benny Goodman, the other famous Jewish jazz clarinetist, in jungles of Africa. Benny had recorded klezmer tinged tunes such as 'Bei Mir Bist du Schoen' as early as 1938, and Artie's own theme song 'Nightmare' owed a debt to an unspoken klezmer background. 'Dr. Livingstone' merges a bluesy jungle floor show impression with that klezmer style, to brilliant witty effect, paying homage to two very important cultural strands in jazz clarinet history.
The complete Gramcery 5 sessions from 1940-1954 are now available on a five disc set from Jasmine records. Be advised that the RCA single disc marketed as the "Complete Sessions" (licked to in this post) is not at all complete, but only the recordings from the early 1940s. This CD was released in the late 1980s, before Shaw himself released the four discs comprising his last sessions, and RCA has never bothered to change the innacuracy on the cover!