Friday, December 30, 2011

Artie Shaw and the Altissimo

Best known for his intense rivalry with Benny Goodman, his succession of marriages to beautiful Hollywood starlets, his temper towards fans, his disdain of the music business, his enigmatic retirements and ultimate disappearance from the world of music in his artistic prime, what is often lost about Artie Shaw is perhaps the most remarkable thing about him: his revolutionary approach and accomplishments on the clarinet.

As early as 1938, when Artie recorded what might be considered the definitive version of his theme song "Nightmare", we can hear a clarinet like none heard before on record. Nearly the entire natural range of the clarinet is represented, without changes in timbre between registers--one long, flexible line from the bottom of the instrument to the top, without strain for high notes. Lightening clarity of fingers, always shaping phrases musically rather than mechanically pounding out patterns, this is virtuoso playing that has seldom, if ever, been equalled by clarinetists:

A contemporary of Shaw, the composer Arnold Schoenberg opined in 'The Future of Orchestral Instruments' (1924):

"Among the winds only the clarinet and horn can be given a favourable prognosis on the basis of their present state. The clarinet is almost as perfect as the violin, if not so versatile."[cited in Hoeprich, p. 206) 
Artie Shaw's recordings, especially dating from 1938 on, are perhaps the best justifications of Schoenberg's statement, for here we witness a clarinet with the flexibility and nearly the range of fine string playing. Indeed, had the Viennese composer written those lines in 1950, he might even have conceded versatility to match (in 1924, it would have taken a remarkable imagination to predict the heights clarinet performance would be pushed to over the next thirty years, by the likes of Benjamin David Goodman and Arthur "Artie Shaw" Arshawsky. Perhaps only the era of Bernhard Crusell and Heinrich Baermann in the early 19th century pushed the potential of the instrument so hard).

Artie Shaw was an enigmatic man, and any discussion of his playing tends to get sidetracked very quickly. The major distraction that never seems to lose interest is his personal life. But there is also the difficulty of parsing the better known quotes from Shaw himself. Like Goodman, he was always conscious of their rivalry, and he was not always complimentary towards the great Chicagoan. The intellectual Shaw would make a habit in his career of suggesting that while Benny was interested in playing the clarinet, he was interested in musical ideas. The implication was that Benny was a technician, Artie a musician.

There is a sense in which this assessment is unfair to both players. Anyone listening to ballads performed by Benny Goodman such as "Body and Soul", "Moonglow", or even "You're Blase" can hear a musician of considerable depth and gifts for phrasing. And as far as his musical ideas are concerned, while he was not as harmonically advanced as Shaw, nor as creative intellectually, there can be no doubt his solo ideas on faster numbers increased the language of jazz clarinet in a melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic sense. During the important years of 1935 until 1938, Goodman frankly exploded the notion of what it was to play jazz clarinet.

Yet paradoxically, Shaw's assessment also shadows his own unique accomplishments, in a very technical sense. In his drive for musical expression unimpeded by his instrument's perceived limitations, Shaw mastered the instrument in a unique way. From the recording of "Nightmare", we hear a fully formed clarinetist with a radically different approach to playing--and one which sidesteps many perceived problems. His flexibility and versatility have already been mentioned, but these qualities, like layer upon layers of the enigma, are also overlooked because of the awe inspiring quality his playing possessed like no other: a fully expressive, flexible, and melodic altissimo register, which he maintained from High G to what will be called "Double C" in this blog.

According to Shaw himself, his altissimo register was a direct result of performance conditions. Playing clarinet in front of a Big Band, often playing with poor speaker systems in dance halls 'the size of airplane hangers', Shaw needed to project above the orchestra. By all accounts he was self taught. And his goal was to have 'real' notes, fully sounding. How he accomplished what he did remains a mystery, but we are not left without clues as to how to approach the instrument in his manner.

Shaw wrote:
"A well known clarinet player came into my dressing-room after a show I'd just played in a theatre (we did five or six shows a day in those days, seven days a week, sometimes for months on end); I used to play my 'Concerto for Clarinet' at the end of every one, and he said 'Artie, do you end every show with that piece?' I said, 'Yes. Why?' He said 'You mean you always end on that top C?' I said, 'Of course. That's how the piece ends.' 'I know,' he said. 'But aren't you ever afraid you'll miss?' I said, 'Put your hand on the table.' He did, and I said, 'Raise your index finger.' He did. I said, 'Were you afraid you'd miss?' 'Well, no,' he said, and then, 'You mean it's like that?' 'If it isn't,' I said, 'don't mess with it.'"[quoted in Nolan, p.157]
For Shaw, range was not a matter of tension--it had to do with posture and training, to make difficult seeming things easy. But how do we crack his method?

It's worth watching Shaw performing excerpts of his 'Concerto': we are fortunate that an excellent performance of it has been preserved in the Fred Astaire movie, Second Chorus (1940). When watching, despite it being slightly out of sinc between audio and video, pay special attention to Shaw physically--note the shoulders, arms, fingers, and embouchure. His upper body is relaxed, with a stillness like a boxer--not tensely, but limber; no extraneous movement, but never stiff. His embouchure is unique, but bearing a resemblance to a more typically German embouchure--the clarinet held farther out, relaxed, with an emphasis on the upper lip. His fingers never tense, but flowing, confident.

His clarinet at this time was almost certainly a large bore Selmer (if anyone can identify the exact model, please do comment), also favored by Goodman at the time. Yet Goodman never controlled the altissimo to the degree the self-taught Shaw did.

My theory, after years of working on the altissimo to try and match Shaw's mastery, lies partially in that he was a self-educated genius of the instrument. Had he been 'properly' educated, his embouchure would probably have been set much differently. As it is, Shaw came to the clarinet through the saxophone, and seems to have simply adapted his alto-embouchure accordingly, with no preconceived ideas about a 'proper' classical sound. But there is possibly more to it.

The popular Method Book for clarinet by H. Klose, in Bellison's revision (published 1946) gives a conventional wisdom that was common among American clarinetists in Shaw's day no less than our own. In the introduction we read

"Do not sacrifice tone for technique. A good tone is a performer's most valuable asset. Let your practice be mostly in the medium and lower registers; the higher register will take care of itself." [Klose, p. 8]
In much French-based American clarinet pedagogy, it is the lower register (chalumeau) that is considered the basis for good tone on the clarinet--as stated above, it is assumed the "higher register will take care of itself." The catalogue of recordings that emphatically disprove this theory need not concern us here--it is enough to note that this principle is often, if not dominantly, taught.

Karl Baermann, on the other hand, seems to offer a different path in his method for clarinet, suggesting that the clarion and upper registers are the most important to develop:
"If this register (which is the finest on the Clarinet) is beautiful, the lower tones will also be necessarily good."    
This is an idea not often presented to American clarinetists, so dominated are we by French method (though Bellison himself played German system clarinets). Fortunately for us, both Shaw and Goodman seem to have had a different foundation. It seems likely that Goodman's youthful training at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue and later at the hands of Franz Schoepp set a more German style foundation than is common here today, and Shaw's familiarity with klezmer style (as shown by such recordings as "Dr. Livingstone I presume" and even "Nightmare") hint at a musical past not always acknowledged.

Whatever may have been the case, both Shaw's and Goodman's approach seem to have been built not from the bottom up, but from the top down--with Shaw's approach and mission seeming the more radical and extreme of the two.

A central attribute of Shaw's altissimo is his command of dynamics. From the recordings we possess of him, we can piece together a sound picture, and it shows the outline of a player who could hit any note in his altissimo at any dynamic, comfortably. His own published "Jazz Method" (two slim volumes of interesting material) does not shed any light upon what exercises he must have done to attain this, but the "short finger exercises" of Baermann's Second Division are a possibly a clue.

I believe Shaw expanded these "short finger exercises" extemporaneously to reach Double C, and did not rest until he could navigate any musical material he might want up there with ease.

The combination of embouchure, relaxed approach, and orientation towards the instrument (top-down rather than bottom-up) are keys I've used to reach towards Shaw's mastery of the clarinet.

Happy Sixth Day of Christmas, everyone!
The Clarinet. Eric Hoeprich. Yale University Press, 2008.
Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet. Tom Nolan. Norton & Co. 2010.
Benny Goodman and the Swing Era. James Lincoln Collier. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Celebrated Method for Clarinet. Klose (revised/Bellison). Carl Fischer.
Complete Method for Clarinet. Baermann (edited Langenus). Carl Fischer, 1918.