3. Artie Shaw with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra * The Blues * Carnegie Hall (1938)
It's astonishing to think that Shaw's performance with Whiteman in 1938, arguably the most impressive jazz clarinet on record (in a technical sense) and certainly one of the most important recordings in American musical history, might be out of print.
The piece, which can be understood as a sketch for Shaw's later Concerto for Clarinet (1940), is perhaps even more important than the final product--at least as a cultural document--for here the influences stand out more boldly. Entitled simply "The Blues", it's a sort of tone poem for clarinet and orchestra combining 'St. Louis Blues' with klezmer--uniting them as convincingly as Gershwin's earlier Rhapsody in Blue had united European concert music with Tin Pan Alley (not coincidentally for an earlier Paul Whiteman extravaganza).
There is something strange and sad about an American culture that takes such little interest in its own positive accomplishments. This particular piece represents a nearly seamless uniting of two strains of human experience, and could not have been accomplished without Shaw's unique background, which was not only Jewish, but steeped in African-American Blues. Had something of this calibre, even just in terms of technique, been written by Carl Maria von Weber for Heinrich Baermann a hundred years earlier, it would be considered a classic of music history. But it isn't even taught in our conservatories here. Classical faculties ignore it (perhaps because most classical clarinetists can't even approximate the techniques needed to perform it) and jazz faculties ignore it, too, as the rush to an increasingly limited understanding of the term "jazz", fueled by ideological rather than musical concerns, dominates.
So this work is buried, mentioned by no one. Perhaps our social tensions, and the desire to maintain them for political purposes, make music such as this an embarrassing reminder that good really can come when barriers are removed and ignored. And perhaps some very powerful people, who profit by our divisions and anger, don't want us to know this. For those who are tired of being treated as pawns, however, this music serves as a type of antidote.
As mentioned in the Introduction to this series, I intend to stretch the boundaries of "Big Band" a bit, if only because the groups under that name were so diverse. Shaw's band, for instance, often included string sections and even harp, and there is a decided blur between what we now accept as a more or less "standard" instrumentation, and what reality was for the groups (usually called "Orchestras") in the "Big Band Era."
[Note: There is a retrospectively chilling moment of 'humor' in the beginning of the performance, where the MC refers to Paul Whiteman as the "Fuhrer" of the orchestra on stage. Little did they know at the time what Hitler thought of Jews, Blacks, and jazz music, and how singularly unfunny such a quip would seem to the entire world only a few months later.]