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.