Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (10)

10. Artie Shaw as Composer/Arranger

No introduction to Big Band Clarinet would be complete without mentioning Artie Shaw's role as both composer and arranger. From his days with Austin Wylie in Cleveland, Shaw had worked as an arranger, and that continued for the duration of his musical career. One of his first compositions, Interlude in B-Flat, for strings, pianoless rhythm section, and clarinet, had a role in launching Shaw's career as a leader in 1936. It's worth noting that George Gershwin attended that 1936 performance, and reportedly told Shaw afterwards that the Interlude was "the first innovation in jazz he had heard in his career." (Though Shaw was quick to point out that "George wasn't exactly a jazz expert" the quote is still impressive). (Lees, 15)

While he hired many excellent arrangers for the duration of his career, men such as Jerry Gray, Eddie Sauter, and William Grant Still often served as collaborators or orchestrators of Shaw's arrangement ideas, and unlike most bandleaders of the era, Shaw had a direct hand in almost all of his bands' "book" (Simosko, 232). 

Of Shaw's total recordings, 15% were his own compositions. Perhaps most impressively, of the eight singles for Victor that sold over a million copies, four were his own and all were arranged by him. (Simosko, 231). Among these were his theme song, "Nightmare"  (a forerunner to the modal jazz which would become popular twenty years later), "Traffic Jam", and the early "Back Bay Shuffle" (written as a musical description of the band's rush to catch the last train out of Boston after a late gig).

Oftentimes fans will buy compilation albums with these tunes on them, and many others, without composer credits. I grew up, for example, listening to many of these songs without knowing until twenty years later that Shaw had composed them. It changes our perspective to realize that Shaw was not just a front man or soloist for his band, but the dominant creative and musical mind for the entire ensemble, not unlike the role Duke Ellington played in his.

Further reading:

Lees, Gene. Program Notes to Artie Shaw: A Legacy . 4LP boxed set, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1984.

Simosko, Vladimir. Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography. The Scarecrow Press, 2000.

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