In September of 1940, Artie Shaw decided it was time to go the way of other bandleaders by adding a "band within a band" to his shows. Tommy Dorsey had done this as early as 1935 with his impishly named "Clambake Seven", as had Bob Crosby with his "Bobcats"--the group most responsible for presenting Irving Fazola to the world beyond New Orleans. These bands were designed to preserve and promote the older style of New Orleans polyphonic improvisation. Throughout the Swing Era different approaches to ensemble jazz had developed, most notably written arrangements and a different type of aural tradition known as "head charts"--motivic arrangements communally developed by bands such as the Fletcher Henderson and Basie bands, often left unnotated.
Benny Goodman had joined the trend for small groups in 1935, though in a more forward looking way, hiring Teddy Wilson to form a trio with himself and Gene Krupa. The group was expanded to a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton in 1936, producing music that was no longer a direct representation of New Orleans or Chicago, but something altogether different. One more major expansion of the group took place with the additions of Charlie Christian and various other players; the Goodman Sextet becoming Benny's small ensemble of choice from 1939 through the mid 1950s.
Considering all of these, which had gained considerable success over the years, Shaw's entry into the small group fray was quite late. When he finally entered, it was with a unique twist: this would be the group to pursue his old ideas concerning "chamber jazz"; ideas which had met with only sporadic success. In an era that prized "hot and loud" music, Shaw had never been at home. His ideal was cooler, more introspective, less bombastic. While the first cuts by his new group would feature some distinctly "hot" numbers, it would ultimately be remembered for it's reflective romanticism.
The first version of the band was comprised of Artie's clarinet along with Billy Butterfield on trumpet, Al Hendrickson on guitar, Jud DeNaut on bass, Nick Fatool on drums, and the novelty for which the first Gramercy 5 will always be know, Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord.
The first recording session of the Gramercy 5 took place on September 3, 1940, and was emblematic for the group's direction. There were two Shaw originals: "Special Delivery Stomp", derived from his earlier big band chart "Man from Mars", and a blues, "Summit Ridge Drive", named for Artie's Hollywood address at the time. Then there were two 'standards': "Keepin' Myself for You" and "Cross Your Heart."
"Summit Ridge Drive" became a major hit, selling over a million copies while taking advantage of the new craze for jukeboxes, and establishing credibility for the new band.
The next session took place three months later, on December 5, 1940. Once again there were two Shaw originals and two standards. "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" was to contain Shaw's most explicit klezmer reference as a composer, while his sarcastic "When the Quail Come Back to San Quentin" paradoxically provided a canvas for many of his more baroque and inspired solo musings in future years. The standards recorded that day were to become almost synonymous with the group: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (a miniature gem of aural poetics) and "My Blue Heaven", the solo of which contains one of Shaw's earliest veiled references to Stravinsky's Petrushka, a piece he would return to more than once.
The group continued to develop past its initial line-up, with each reiteration adding a layer or two of depth and innovation. Reassembled in 1945, Roy Eldridge was featured on trumpet, Dodo Marmarosa on piano instead of harpsichord, and Barney Kessel on guitar. This was the group that laid down a succession of Shaw's most biting original tunes--"The Sad Sack" (short for "sad sack of shit"--a term used to describe worthless soldiers in WWII), "The Grabtown Grapple" (which predated Charlie Parker's similarly named "Scrapple from the Apple"), "Scuttlebutt" (Artie's ode to arguments), "The Gentle Grifter" and "Mysterioso" among them. Sometimes brooding, always intense, these tunes brought a satirical edge to small group jazz similar to Mahler's moments of symphonic sarcasm or Shostakovich's bitter parodies. This continued throughout the '40s, with Shaw adding tunes like "Crumbum" and "Nothin' From Nothin'" to the catalogue.
Also like Mahler, while capable of being artistically critical and biting, Shaw was very rarely pessimistic in an ultimate sense. Over the course of his career he recorded many songs of disappointment and even bitterness, but only one ("Gloomy Sunday") strikes as despairing, self-pitying, and hopeless. A more typically Shavian message comes at the end of 1950's Gramercy 5 recording of "There Must Be Something Better Than Love"--the end of which dismisses the title sentiment with the final rhetorical questions:
But if there's something better than love who's got it?
Who wants it?
Often emotionally confrontational, Shaw's love tunes from this period were certainly not facile.
The last group to be known as the Gramercy 5 was an entirely reconstituted group, both in sound and personnel. With Hank Jones on piano and Joe Roland on vibes, especially, the group took on a truly pellucid, ruminative, and romantic quality that has rarely if ever been matched, and was finally to realize Shaw's vision of clear, deep, chamber jazz. This is the group that laid down the now famous "Last Recordings" and "Final Sessions" of Artie Shaw, which were kept unreleased for several decades. They were the summit of Shaw's achievement and as complete a look at his career's importance as we were ever to get--a last will and testament before, like Prospero, he "broke his staff and drowned his book."
Immediately apparent to Shaw enthusiasts is the difference in tone from these recordings. Gone is so much of the bitterness, the biting sarcasm, and the frustration-laced wailings of so many of Shaw's earlier recordings. Peace, so difficult to convey in music, gentleness, and warmth are dominant in new ways in this music--it exudes a pure, fresh romanticism seemingly untainted by darker elements often associated with the term. After these sessions, Shaw packed up his clarinet and never recorded again.
This 5-disc set from Jasmine Records, entitled "Six Star Treats" is perhaps the most essential box of jazz clarinet recordings available. Not only does it bring together, for the first time, all of the studio recordings of the various groups to work under the Gramercy 5 name, but it provides alternate takes and many live performances, including some tunes the group never recorded in the studio.
Towards the end of disc one, for instance, there are clips from a Bing Crosby broadcast featuring the Gramercy 5 performing Gershwin's "I Was Doing Alright" and Rodgers & Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me", both of which are given masterful interpretation and neither of which was recorded in studio. There are also some rare alternate, shorter takes released as singles of the last Gramercy 5. "Besame Mucho", "Tenderly", and "Stop and Go Mambo" are each presented in this alternate form, giving a rare and brief glimpse into the "head arrangement" process that Shaw had used throughout the life of the ensemble.
The transfers of these recordings are consistently good, though collectors will also want to own other versions. The RCA Victor "Complete" disc (which is nowhere near complete, but contains only the studio recordings from 1940-45) has exceptionally good sound, and the original issues of the "Last Recordings" have not only good sound quality, but important interview liner notes with Shaw.
But as it stands, this 5-disc set is the very best out there for Artie Shaw and His Gramercy 5. It is the most comprehensive box of Shaw's most important recordings. It couldn't be more essential. Five Good Reeds indeed.