Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Shekomeko Shuffle: In Search of Artie Shaw

Leading off his series In Search of Shakespeare, Michael Wood asked:

"[Why] go in search of Shakespeare? Can the life of a writer ever be as interesting or exciting as a conqueror, an inventor, or an explorer, a Napoleon, a Columbus, an Alexander the Great? Well yes it can. More so, because the writers and the poets are the explorers of the human heart, and long after the conquerors are forgotten, their legacy will be the most valuable to us as human beings."

If poets are the explorers of the human heart, perhaps musicians are the explorers of the soul--that region touching the eternal; the essential aspect of human beings so difficult to describe or analyze. And just as the geography of great writers warrants our attention, so too those of musicians--especially jazz musicians, who more than any others seem to carry their lives with them wherever they go, singing them through their horns.

America isn't the type of nation that likes to honor (or perhaps even remember) its artists, especially those outside the mainstream, who might serve little immediate commercial or political purpose. Try naming the historical markers for great poets or musicians, and you might find the list to be short. In my own lifetime, I can remember seeing only three monuments to writers: A statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland, Maine; another of James Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown, NY; and a statue of Hart Crane (since removed or relocated) in Cleveland. I'm sure there are others, but a casual trip through the UK will show more constant markers denoting important artists. In the history of jazz, only New Orleans seems to fully acknowledge importance of place, and has done an admirable job maintaining the roots of jazz history.

With this in mind, I set out this past week to visit one of  the most important landscapes outside of New Orleans for a jazz clarinetist: the site of Artie Shaw's farm near Pine Plains, NY, in the bucolic Hudson Valley Region.

Shaw remains for me among the most important of all jazz clarinetists, for several reasons. First, if you poll musicians you'll find that just about every type of clarinetist has endorsed him. In a world of rivalry, jealousy, and bravado, his playing remains close to universally admired.

New Orleans native and Ellington alumnus Barney Bigard called Shaw the greatest of all jazz musicians.

Buddy DeFranco, the first great bop clarinetist, called Shaw's 'Stardust' solo the finest ever played.

Don Byron, a representative of the avant garde in current jazz clarinet, has said "I remember the clarity of [Shaw's] tone, a harder, edgier, and more modern tone than Benny Goodman's. He could play stuff that made harmonic sense way up high, and where Goodman's playing seemed both triadic and ornamental, Shaw's note choices seemed to foreshadow the discipline that would become bebop."

Even the classical world has paid homage to Shaw's clarinetistry. Franklin Cohen of the Cleveland Orchestra said "Shaw is the greatest player I ever heard. It's hard to play the way he plays. It's not an overblown orchestral style. He makes so many incredible shadings."

This is nothing short of remarkable. There are few musicians who can claim, on any instrument, such a list of admirers.

Second, on a personal level, Shaw's geography has overlapped my own. Both of us grew up in New York and Southern Connecticut as kids. Both of us lived in Cleveland, and both of us had a deep attachment to the mystic beauty of the Hudson Valley region of New York State.

It was in the Hudson Valley that Artie Shaw made his most significant strides as a musician, expanding his musical style from swing to modern jazz. While living at Picardy Farm, four miles south of Pine Plains, New York, he wrote his autobiography and quietly deepened his playing, composing tunes reflective of the landscape. The first of these, entitled "The Shekomeko Shuffle" was a tongue-in-cheek tone poem describing the frustrations of having to commute from the farm, where he had felt such peace, to New York City. The tune begins and ends with a bitter quote from Stravinsky's Petrushka--but eschewing existential whining, Shaw launches into an argument that feels like an upbeat drive down the Taconic Parkway. Along the way, Shaw demonstrates how he was assimilating and transforming modern jazz influences--an expansion of jazz clarinet vocabulary that would ultimately result in the massive Last Recordings of 1953.

Shekomeko was very close to Shaw's farm--just over a few hills, in fact. Originally a Mohican village for converts of the Moravian missionaries, it was also the likely place where the fictional Natty Bumppo would have met Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking tales.

The Jazz Clarinet goes to Shekomeko

Driving over the hills to the site of Shaw's old farm, I listened to tunes like "Lyric", which Shaw said was inspired by Robert Henri's quote about another painter; that he painted "like a man going over a hill, whistling." Nowhere has this music seemed more at home than these hills.

Landscape near the site of the Shaw Farm

Before this trip, I'd contacted the Library at Pine Plains, inquiring as to whether or not anyone still knew where Shaw lived, exactly, as the properties have changed hands and boundaries several times since he sold his acreage. As of this writing, I haven't gotten a reply--but I did manage to find out that his farm was located "four miles south of Pine Plains on route 82."

When I arrived at the spot along Route 82, there were a few options for potential homes. Not knowing exactly which might have been Artie's, I did the next best thing: stood alongside Route 82, by a barn that might have belonged to Artie Shaw, and played the Shekomeko Shuffle. Unless anyone can prove otherwise, I now lay claim to being the first jazz clarinetist since Shaw himself to play 'The Shekomeko Shuffle' along Route 82.

ES along Rt. 82

In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I mentioned the importance of place regarding the final Gramercy 5 recordings:

The music was intended by Shaw to sound "clear, pellucid" which he likened to the waters of a mountain lake, so pristine that you can see to the bottom. The metaphor is apt, and a worthy goal for jazz musicians: it implies a transparent honesty. Many such lakes exist up where Shaw had lived on a farm for much of the early '50s near Shekomeko, NY--a place he said he wished he could have remained.

"Picardy Farm..." he would write nearly thirty years later. "Good God, the emotions those two words evoke. The place where for the first time in my life I had found a real home, a warm sense of security, and a feeling of calm and peace of mind."

That sense of pristine beauty, clarity, and peace of mind is never far away in these recordings, and has probably never been equaled in jazz history.

Near the old Shaw farm is Taghkanic State Park, where one might experience one of those pellucid lakes. To see the morning mists turn into clouds in the sunrise at such a place, in a landscape that seems to eschew the banalities of commercialism and wrangling--somehow remaining pristine throughout it all--is to come into contact with some of the essential inspiration for Shaw's greatest music. It is a landscape that is unique for the variety of artists it has inspired: from James Fenimore Cooper's novels, to the paintings of the Hudson River school, to Artie Shaw, to Sonny Rollins.

Morning Mist over Lake Taghkanic

If I'd never gone to New Orleans, I might never have understood, on a deeper level, the roots of jazz--especially the playing of Sidney Bechet and the earliest jazz clarinetists. Likewise, going in search of Artie Shaw's farm; hearing and playing this music in this landscape, has brought me a deeper appreciation of both.


Carpetbagger from Queens said...

I first heard Shekomeko Shuffle back in the late 60’s. It was on the Decca album “ Dance To Artie Shaw” The clarinet break just blew me away. Years later after his later Grammercy Five performances were re-released first on Book of the Month and later Music Masters I discovered that the break which I naively assumed to be fully improvised was a pattern that he used in other tunes. No matter, it was still great.

It would have been nice if his later work was on film or kinescope. There appears to be very few pictures of Shaw and his group in the later years

Eric Seddon said...

I dig the clarinet break to The Shekomeko Shuffle too--even transcribed it. Not sure where
you heard it again in the later Gramercy 5 cuts: can you name the tune?

I wish that last 5 had been filmed too: I sometimes think I've learned as much from watching Shaw as listening to him.

Carpetbagger from Queens said...

You transcribed it. Very impressive.
I can't remember where I heard part of the that lick but it's in more than one tune. I have all the later Gramercy Five recordings on CD and spending the next days listening to them would not be painful in the least. I'll get back to you on that. I first found my first later G5 recording on a EP in the early 60's. It contained Tenderly and Shaw's solo blew me away. It was so different from his RCA playing and yet was definitely Shaw. I just found your blog. It's wonderful.

Eric Seddon said...

Glad you like the blog!

I've transcribed a great deal of Shaw's solos over the years--including a large number of the last Gramercy 5 recordings. For me, they constitute essential study for any serious jazz clarinetist.

I might have missed his insertion of that Shekomeko lick into one of the other tunes, in which case I definitely want to know about it! Artie's aural poetic was very interesting, and the more we can connect the dots on those things, the more profound our listening experience of him becomes. My guess, though, is that you might be hearing various phrase ideas, formulae and/or patterns that are reminiscent of each other, depending on context--known among jazzers as "language."

That you heard the last G5 on an EP as early as the 60s is very cool--and very rare. Did you have one of the Clef records EPs with a Stone Martin cover?

Happy listening--lemme know what your ears tell me about the last G5 recordings!

Carpetbagger from Queens said...

Artie Shaw - More Last Recordings

These as you say are reminiscent of the Shekomeko break. To me it so distinctive that anything close sounds like it especiall since the notes are flying by. You transciptions of course will show the distinct differences. All jazz players have licks that thy use over and over. One of Coleman Hawkins licks from the 1939 Body and Soul record appear in his solo on Frank Sinatra's Sweet Lorraine cut from 1946. The fact that I listed to the Shekomeko break a lot long before I heard the rest of the laster G5 makes me think of them as the same notes. Now that I am listening again i can hear both similarities and differences.

Summit Ridge Drive 3:18 4:32
Back Bay Shuffle 1:47
Cross Your Heart 4:36

AS to the EP cover I'can't find it right now and can't remember which one it was. A lot of my records are buried way. It might be the center cover in the bottom row in your picture.

Brainfood said...

Wow! I knew Artie had lived in NY state, but I didn't recognize the town name and didn't bother to figure out where exactly it was. It looks like Shekomeko is 2 hours from me on back roads - I sense a jazz clarinet motorcycle ride of science coming up in my near future!

Eric Seddon said...


Very cool! I posted this to generate some interest--and hopefully inspire road trips. Just be advised that the site of the old Shaw farm (or the Picardy farm, as it was known before Shaw bought it) is not exactly in Shekomeko, so far as I can tell.

According to an old newspaper clipping, however, Shaw's farm was four miles south of Pine Plains, NY, on Route 82. There are videos about Shaw on YouTube which seem to suggest, by photo, that Shaw's place was on the east side of the road (or "on the left" if approaching from the North via Pine Plains).

I've sent questions to everyone I can think of in Pine Plains, but no one has ever been able to tell me where Shaw lived. The land has since been divided, though what was his house and main plant of the dairy farm appears to be, in part, a horse farm now.

The photo of me playing by the barn is just south of that main house, and may or may not have been part of his original property.

It's an inspiring place to visit, though...thinking of the hours Shaw must have logged to expand his playing, and the tunes he wrote there. Let us know if you make it!

Beth said...

Artie Shaw's farmhouse is still standing. My mother's house is in Shekomeko, and she bought the land from the original
owner of a large farm (not Shaw's), and many people point out the place Artie Shaw used to live. It is not on Route 82, but on Route 83. There is a veterinarian at 1431 Route 83, and as you are heading south (I think) toward Route 64 (McGhee Hill Road) you pass a horse farm, then set some distance back from the road is a white farmhouse with a small porch in front. That is Shaw's farm, and it is in Shekomeko proper though the mailing address would be Pine Plains. In Millerton there is a little newspaper shop run by an old timer who I'd been told knew Shaw. I went in and asked him once, and he was happy to chat about Shaw, and the infamous wedding to Ava Gardner. I can e-mail you a picture of the farm if you like.

Eric Seddon said...

Great info Beth!! Yes, please email me a pic of Shaw's old farmhouse. I'll have to check it out next time I'm in the area. Thanks.