Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Artie Shaw's Clarinet Method

Artie Shaw was reluctant to talk about clarinet technique, and throughout the long course of his musical retirement, tended to stress an indifference to the clarinet itself. In many interviews he compared himself favorably to Benny Goodman, referring to the latter as a technician, while emphasizing his own, ostensibly more musical concerns. "I played music, he played the clarinet," is a famous summary of Artie's thought. Those who have listened critically to both men can only come to the conclusion that this was more of a Shavian evasion, or a continuation of the rivalry, than anything else. Both of them played the clarinet musically, neither was anything close to a mere technician, and neither of them was anything less than technically brilliant.

Yet of the two, and despite his protestations, Shaw was actually more revolutionary in a technical sense. His range was superior to Goodman's, his control of the instrument more complete than any clarinetist on record, and his technique seemingly unprecedented. In the clarinet repertoire preceding him, one might find demonstrations of range comparable in the Spohr and Tausch concerti, but never the use of glissandi--the near complete flexibility that was Shaw's trademark. Accompanying this was a consistency of tone and fluidity of approach that seems to defy the rules of normal clarinetistry.

Because of his expressed ambivalence towards the clarinet and technical discussions, I've often wondered if he even realized, fully, the degree to which his playing surpassed the models before him. We have no record of the great virtuosi of the 18th and 19th century, and therefore can't know what Heinrich Baermann or Franz Tausch would have sounded like--perhaps they also had Shaw's flexibility, and perhaps the use of portamento was common and unreported in solo repertoire. By the time Shaw hit the scene, though, there seems to have been no player able to do what he did.

With these persistent questions (which are unlikely be fully answered), I was lucky enough to stumble across and purchase a copy of Artie's 1941 book on clarinet technique. These are so rarely on the market that, as of this writing, the only copy available on Amazon is offered for $295, a hefty price for a relatively slim, 89 page volume.

Almost half of this book is still in print, in the form of two volumes entitled Artie Shaw's Jazz Technic. Volume 1 is a facsimile of the original Method's pages 38-63, while Volume 2 collects fourteen etudes found on pages 64-77. Missing from the current volumes are the opening exercises dealing mostly with diatonic scales and chords, and six transcribed solos with piano accompaniments at the end.

The opening exercises are very instructive. While I don't possess an encyclopedic knowledge of method books prior to 1941, my collection has quite a few, and I've never seen one that works through each key by starting on each scale degree, successively, in modal style (even if this is not explicitly stated). In many ways this book looks like a harbinger for the later, popular saxophone method written by Joseph Viola.

Also telling are the selection of transcribed solos, especially the inclusion of "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" which contains Shaw's most open reference to Klezmer. This is made all the more significant for the odd fact that Shaw was later to disavow the tune as silly--and to distance himself from klezmer as such. Anyone who has read his autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella, however, knows that Artie wrestled with his Jewish identity. This more or less constant contradiction in his life--boldly and even proudly putting forth obviously klezmer rooted music, such as Dr Livingstone and Nightmare--only to evade analysis of it as such should be treated, in my opinion, as neither disingenuous nor dishonest on Shaw's part. Instead, I believe he was a man who struggled with the weight of his own brilliance, and who didn't always understand the roots of his genius. The result was often that his explanations seemed to contradict his work. Seeming contradictions are often paradoxes in disguise, though, and the more we get to know Shaw's work, the more paradoxical it inevitably becomes.

This aside, the volume also contains a least a little bit of prose from Shaw regarding clarinet technique, unavailable elsewhere. Early on, he thanks Arnold Brilhart, the musician, mouthpiece maker, synthetic reed pioneer, and collaborator on the volume. It's likely that Brilhart served as a sounding board and perhaps even primary notator of the volume (perhaps even penning the opening exercises and transcriptions no longer available in the current facsimiles).

On page 2, however, we are given something a little out of the ordinary: a glimpse at why Shaw bothered writing a book on a subject he seemed so little interested in discussing afterwards. I believe it is proof that he did know how extraordinary his own approach to the horn was--and that it was worth suggesting to others, even if only in truncated form. Some quotes show his concerns:

This book is not intended to replace any of the standard clarinet methods now in  use. [...] [But] is to provide a different type of exercise for the student whose aim is to play not in the symphony but in the dance band. 
[There] are certain idiomatic and technical differences between [classical and jazz playing]--certain arbitrary and traditional criteria that should be stripped away from the former--that make the publication of such a book as this not only permissible but desirable.
There are several conceptions regarding the so-called "proper" way to play the clarinet. Most of these exist because of the rigidly academic approach to the subject. It is in the hope of clearing the air of a few arbitrary prejudices, as well as providing the student with a system of exercises designed to promote the freedom and flexibility of technique vital to unhampered performance in the jazz band, that I am offering this new CLARINET METHOD.
Freedom and flexibility are hallmarks of Shaw's style, not found in classical techniques. It is nice to see that he recognized his achievement consciously, even if he was ambivalent to it or less interested later in life.

Tellingly, this is not a jazz method book--it has nothing in it to suggest instruction in the art of improvisation. Instead, it's meant to expand the player's approach to the clarinet in order to gain flexibility of expression. Thus it is a rare glimpse behind the veil of a man who denied much interest in the mere means of expression, so preoccupied was he with the result. Ultimately, this method only scratches the surface of Shaw's approach. To me its main value is its proof that Artie knew how unique that approach was. In the end, to get such a glimpse is a rare enough thing when dealing with a mind so enigmatic, and so worthwhile, as Artie Shaw's.


Anonymous said...

I have always loved jazz clarinet, though I don't play myself. Not to take anything away from Goodman, there is just something about Shaws tone that just amazes me. It doesn't surprise me at all that he was reluctant to talk about technique related stuff. It makes him go up in my estimation. I usually find it excrutiating to hear artists talk about their own work - just do it for gosh sakes and let your work speak for itself!
Seriously though, some things lie beyond words or analysis - things you just do, that seem right to you. I find a lot to admire in Shaw.

ES said...

Agreed, Anonymous. There is a lot of unquantifiable brilliance to Artie's playing.

What I found gratifying about the Method book was that Artie acknowledged, for once, that his involvement with clarinet technique was serious, with the added bonus that he was consciously aware that it went beyond classical technique.

There is a tendancy among jazz historians to inflate certain quips of Shaw's--like the one about Benny being concerned about the clarinet, while he was concerned with music. I've always been annoyed that this jab has been taken so literally--just as Benny was jabbing back when he said that Artie's tone was "saxo-phoney", we have to understand that both men fueled the rivalry, regardless of protestations otherwise.

Jamey Aebersold points out somewhere that there is a myth of jazz, that players either "have it" or they "don't"--a myth that great jazz musicians are just plopped down on earth fully formed. He points out that if Bird was a genius, he uncovered it by practicing extremely hard. That myth has enveloped Shaw to a degree too--partly at his instigation; but he was no different--his concern with the clarinet itself was profound, at least surrounding those years in which he gave us so many masterpieces. It's nice to see he acknowledged that hard work at least occasionally.

David Piscopo said...

Great article. I'm a 55 yr old who just discovered jazz and more specifically big band only in the last year or so. I started off listening to Benny before expanding outwards to Artie Shaw, Woody, Kenton etc.
As my knowledge and experience has evolved over the year I'm now at the point I rented a clarinet and have been self teaching. One thing I noticed is how I slowly became an admirer of the AS sound and my admiration for BG became limited as my needs to b challenged by the music were being met by Artie. BG is enjoyable but safe and Artie is exciting and for listeners who don't mind being challenged. Either way I'm ecstatic to have discovered this big band sound. Classic case of better late than never.

Sezratron said...

I wrote my music degree dissertation in 2012 about the differences between jazz and classical clarinet styles, comparing Shaw and Goodman's recordings of the first movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. To have this info would have greatly informed, but alas never surfaced when I was doing my research.

Mike Carter said...

One of the big differences between Shaw an ,Goodman and Woody Herman was thaty Goodman along with Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were first and foremost businessmen. For me Goodman technically bgood but always plays it safe Artie Shaw was a risk taker .

Mike Carter said...

Enjoyed this I learnt clarinet as a teenager but gave up in my early twenties.
Watching my granson practice the piano Ipointed out a mistake he made. He was astonished that I could read music and encouraged me to start playing again aged 70 .I followed his advice and am still noodling at 77.
I have always thought that one of the big differences between Goodman and Herman and Artie Shaw was that Benny was above all a business man along with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey all sound musicians good readers but always played safe Artie was prepared to take a risk and was more adaptable .Did not know he played the Mozart so will give it alook and compare with the Goodman version.

Eric Seddon said...

Thanks for the comment, Mike. Can't say I agree with your assessment of Benny Goodman, though. His success was predicated on risk taking, and a refusal to bow to the pressures of commercialism. It's a matter of the historical record that his 1935 band was a hard driving jazz man's orchestra, not the sweet music that was more commercially popular. They happened to hit it big while sticking to their musical guns. Likewise, Benny's quest for artistic satisfaction lead him to integrate his band, forming the Benny Goodman Quartet with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, then adding Charlie Christian and Cootie Williams, among many, many others. He was a supreme risk taker. That he turned each of those decisions into a monumental success doesn't negate what a risk they were. Likewise, he was a musical risk taker--and there are many recordings which show both successes and failures on that count. In the 1940s, he even attempted a bop band, and integrated bop styles more into his sextet. While that isn't remembered as his greatest era, he introduced players like Stan Hasselgard to the world through it. As a classical player, he commissioned concerti by modern master composers such as Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland, and Paul Hindemith. He recorded challenging modern pieces such as the Nielsen Concerto. So Benny was first and foremost a musician, who also happened to drive a hard bargain and make a fortune...but he never sacrificed his ideals, musically, and he drove the music forward through almost constant risk taking.