In honor of April being Jazz month, Jewish Treats presents a short biography of Artie Shaw, who often competed with Benny Goodman for the title of “The King of Swing.”
Born in New York City in 1910, Artie Shaw was originally named Arthur Jacob (Avraham ben Yitzchak) Arshawsky. When Shaw was a child, the family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where, according to his own representations, Shaw faced a great deal of anti-Semitism during his childhood. His youth was made even more difficult when his father abandoned the family.
Shaw began playing the saxophone at age 13, and then switched to the clarinet, enabling his true musical brilliance to shine. At 16, Shaw began touring with a band. However, by 21, after a short career in New York’s music scene, Shaw left the city determined to become a writer instead.
By 1935, however, Shaw was back in the city. When he was asked to put together a small band to perform during orchestra changes on stage at a swing concert at New York’s Imperial Theater, Shaw introduced his composition “Interlude in B-flat,” which uniquely combined his clarinet with a string quartet and a rhythm section. The audience went wild. Shaw’s greatest hits were “Begin the Beguine” and “Frenesi.”
In 1941, Shaw enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II and, for 18 months, played concerts for troops throughout the Pacific (sometimes several per day).
Shaw was a particularly difficult personality. He formed numerous bands that he then dissolved just as they became successful. In 1954, he stopped playing and took up the life of a writer.
Although his Jewish heritage did not seem to play a large role in his life, it is interesting to note that the piece he chose to be his signature song, was “Nightmare,” a Hassidic influenced piece written in 1938.
Artie Shaw passed away at age 94 on December 30, 2004. He left behind a diverse legacy of music and writing.
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