You probably didn‘t know it, but Artie Shaw is alive and well and living in Southern California. He’s been here for 23 years, writing books in a modest tract house at the far end of the San Fernando Valley. I went there recently to talk with him about his amazing life, and encountered a man of 89 with a startlingly high energy level. Shaw‘s powers of recall are impressive, too.
And that’s a good thing, because Shaw‘s had a front-row seat for most of the 20th century. Born in Manhattan in 1910, Shaw was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, from where he longed to escape. He quit school when he was 14 and taught himself to play saxophone, and to read and arrange music. By the age of 15, he’d mastered the clarinet as well and was on the road with Johnny Cavallaro‘s band. Ten years later, Shaw was fronting his own band, and over the next 18 years he formed and dismantled eight more. Shaw rose to prominence during the big-band era, but that style never really suited him. And whereas Benny Goodman’s peaches-and-cream music is unfailingly polite, Shaw‘s is edgy, untamed, straining into the future.
Shaw hated the music business, though, and in 1939 he quit and went to Mexico. He returned to the States the following year, still feeling ambivalent about his career. Then, in 1954, he quit for good to devote himself to writing. His first book, The Trouble With Cinderella, was published in 1952 and is still in print, as are two other works of fiction. Incredibly enough, Shaw managed to fit eight marriages and divorces into his already packed life. A legendary ladies’ man, Shaw had affairs with Betty Grable, Joan Crawford and Lena Horne, and was married to actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Doris Dowling and Evelyn Keyes, writer Kathleen Winsor (author of the ‘40s potboiler Forever Amber) and Jerome Kern’s daughter Betty.
Shaw lives alone now, in a house cluttered with art, books and, yes, music equipment. His current work in progress is running at around 1,100 pages, and he plans to edit the manuscript down for publication sometime over the next two years. Robert Altman wants to make a movie of his life, starring Johnny Depp, though it‘s hard to imagine this rich, sprawling life condensed into a two-hour biopic.
To begin at the beginning, what sort of childhood did you have?
I was a lower-middle-class Jewish kid in a predominantly Catholic community, so I grew up completely warped by this business of ”The Jews killed Christ.“ My childhood forced a certain amount of humility into me, because I was nothing. I was nobody from nowhere, and I had to elbow people aside to get anywhere. People who knew me then said, ”Boy, you sure knew where you were going,“ but I didn’t know at all. They mistook desperation for self-confidence. The only thing I was sure of was that I wasn‘t staying where I started.
Did your parents have a good marriage?
One of the worst I can imagine. It was one constant bicker. My father left when I was 13, and I suspect my practicing the horn had something to do with that — it must’ve been pretty bad. I didn‘t see him again until four years later, after I entered an essay-writing contest and won a trip to Hollywood. My father showed up when I was in Hollywood, and, seeing him again, I experienced a flood of memories, some good, some bad. I wasn’t angry at him for leaving, because, like all good American boys, I was in love with my mother and wanted my father out of the way. He went, and that was okay until I learned the price of having her to myself. I was an only child, so I became her surrogate husband. I had my mother on my neck like a Jewish albatross. I created a monster. She didn‘t know any better, of course. She was just a peasant woman who’d come from Austria to America and immediately got married.
Were your parents musically inclined?
No, but I learned late in life there was music on my mother‘s side. I always thought she was tone-deaf — and she was — but she had a brother who asked to sing at her funeral. He got up and started singing, and though he didn’t have much voice left, I could hear music.
How did you discover music?
I saw a guy play a song called ”Dreamy Melody“ on saxophone in a vaudeville theater when I was a kid, and dreamt a way of escaping a life of poverty I couldn‘t stand. Lots of kids joined the service to change their lives, but I learned how to play the horn instead, by listening to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. They were the best there was, and they did things no one had done before in terms of emotion, technical ability and the element of surprise.
During the ’30s, you and Benny Goodman were America‘s dueling ”Kings of Swing.“ What are your thoughts on Goodman?
Benny was a superb technician, but he had a limited vocabulary. He never understood that there were more than a major, a minor and a diminished — he just couldn’t get with altered chords. We worked together for years in radio, and Benny was pretty dumb. His brother Freddy managed one of my last bands, and I once asked him what Benny was like as a kid. He said, ”Stupid.“ I said, ”How do you account for his success?“ He said, ”The clarinet was the only thing he knew,“ and it‘s true. He was sort of an idiot savant — not quite idiot, but on the way. He didn’t quite make it to idiocy.
Les Robinson was a great alto man in my band, and I taught him to play alto. He played with Goodman briefly, and once, while he was playing, Goodman was giving him a look. Lester‘s kind of feisty, so he said, ”Why are you looking at me like that?“ Goodman said, ”You learned some bad habits from Artie Shaw,“ and Lester said, ”Yeah? He can cut your ass anytime he wants.“ Goodman fired Les that night. He was such a child — he’d get mad when guys in his band got applause! Anybody who was any good in that band ran in-to trouble.
You met Billie Holiday in Harlem when she was 15 years old, and she joined your band in 1936. What‘s your most vivid memory of her?
One that comes to mind was the time we went on a tour of the South. [Shaw was the first white bandleader to tour the South with a black vocalist.] We were a traveling band by necessity, because you can’t stay in one place and make any money, so we were on our way south in a bus. She was very troubled, and I was, too. She said, ”Should I do this?“ I said, ”Yeah, I think it‘s important,“ and she said, ”I guess you’re right. Let‘s try it.“ We got there and played a couple nights, and it was fine, very successful. They liked her. One night, we were about to start the next number and some cracker on the dance floor yells, ”Let the nigger wench sing another tune.“ He actually didn’t mean it badly — that was simply his way of designating a colored girl. Billie had a short temper, and I didn‘t blame her, so she started mouthing off at him. I’d made preparations in case something like this happened. I had my bus driver and a couple of cops in the wings. I told them, ”If anything happens, I‘ll give you the high sign. Hustle her into the bus and drive away.“ So they hustled her away, and that was the end of the Southern tour for her. Billie understood. I used to invite her to parties, and she’d say, ”No, I ain‘t coming. It’s gonna be all ofays, and when the water‘s too deep, I can’t swim.“ a
Has the racism that then pervaded America lessened?
As with all such things, it takes a long time. But things have improved to the point that blacks can now go into hotels. I remember going to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to hear Joe Williams. There was a line of people waiting to get in, but Joe knew I was coming, so he showed up in the lobby, pulled my coat and said, ”Colored folks‘ time.“ I said, ”Great.“ Just a few years earlier, he would have had to come in through the back door. I remember the last time I played Vegas, I told the black guys in my band, ”We’re going to Vegas, and you‘re gonna make a lot of money, but you won’t be allowed to sit in the room. What do you want to do?“ They said, ”Let‘s go,“ so we got a trailer for them to hang out in. Cab Calloway had that, too. He was headlining at a big hotel and had to go to a trailer between shows.
How do you explain the fact that you never fell prey to drugs, which were so pervasive in the jazz world then?
I never wanted to screw around with drugs, because I have enough trouble sober trying to figure out this puzzle called living. What is it? Who are we? Where are we going? Any thoughtful person realizes the answers to those questions are a complete mystery. I certainly don’t have answers, but I do believe there‘s something here that doesn’t meet my eye. We have no concept of what the force is that made this topsy-turvy, insane cosmos, but something did. You can‘t make me believe it came out of nowhere and is nothing but an inane joke. How do you explain Bach’s B-minor Mass, or the proportions of the Acropolis?
Do you believe in God?
I think we are to God, if there is such a thing, like a microscopic cell in the left toenail of Gary Kasparov in the middle of a chess match. That cell has as much awareness of what Kasparov‘s doing as we do of God’s activities. We like to presume we know about the universe, but we don‘t know what we’re talking about. We have finite minds, and we‘re dealing with something called infinity. The most one can hope for is to live a good life and try to leave things a little better than you found them.
You enlisted in the Navy in 1942. How was your experience during the war?
Awful. I joined because I felt it was the right thing to do, but you can’t believe what it was like for a guy like me. Because everybody knew me. I joined a few months after December 1941. I was playing a theater in Providence, Rhode Island, and when I went offstage for a smoke, I heard a hysterical voice on the radio saying, ”The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor! World War II has begun!“ I went back onstage feeling as if a huge, gigantic force was coming at me. The manager asked me to announce that all military personnel were to report to their bases immediately, and because we were near Newport, that announcement practically emptied the theater. It dawned on me that what I was doing was totally senseless, so I told the first alto man, ”Two weeks‘ notice — pass it on.“ I didn’t want to rethink it.
Those years in the service were the lowest point in my life. In a way, though, the war saved my life, because it ended that period of success. By the time I was discharged in 1944, I was a wreck and was suffering what we now refer to as post-traumatic stress. I was married to Betty Kern then, so I returned to her father‘s house in Beverly Hills, where we were living while we fixed up our big house in Beverly Hills. It was all too much, and I didn’t have a clue who I was, so I left the marriage and got into analysis. The Navy had shaken me up pretty good, not to mention the fact that I was confused enough when I enlisted. The only thing worse than failure is unmitigated success, and success on the scale I had it is one of the most confusing things that can happen to a person. I just finished reading a book a friend of mine wrote about Harry James, who led a life of megasuccess, excess and utter misery. As I read it I was thinking, ”Good God, why couldn‘t he pull himself out of that?“ But it could easily have happened to me.
What’s the most significant historical event you‘ve witnessed?
World War II. After that I’d say Roosevelt‘s death, which had a huge impact. I was playing the Orpheum Theater in L.A., and it closed the theater. Roosevelt was the last important father figure to the American people. I met him once when I went to Washington with Franny Farmer and John Garfield to talk to Congress about the continuation of WPA Theater. We were shunted from place to place and ended up talking with Roosevelt, who was a truly magnetic man. He looked you in the eye, heard what you said and focused completely. He told us he was in total sympathy and what we said made sense, but we didn’t have a constituency and couldn‘t win that one. I haven’t voted in the last five elections, because I can‘t find anybody to vote for — even Kennedy was just a stinky rich kid. Roosevelt was the last president the public respected. Yes, he was to the manor born and was raised in a world I never knew, but he assumed responsibility for the stewardship of this country.
Why did you marry so many times?
Because I was famous. That attracts women like flies, and you couldn’t just shack up in those days. I was 19 the first time I married, to a girl named Jane Carns. Her mother came and got her, and the marriage was never consummated. Then, when I was 23, I met a nurse named Margaret Allen at a party, and she moved in with me two days later. We were together for three years, and the last year was hopeless. She was Catholic and we didn‘t want children, but she had a problem with the idea of contraception. She had tremendous guilt. You know that Catholic shit people go through? She knew better, but she couldn’t deal with the emotion. Nonetheless, even the worst marriage is a horrible thing to break up. Suddenly there‘s nobody to be embroiled with, addicted to, no more teeny-weeny talk. It’s a series of habits that are difficult to break. I don‘t have any of that anymore, I’m relieved to say. That part of my life is over. Somebody once said that being freed of the need for sex is like finally being allowed to dismount from a wild horse.
Sex can create tremendous chaos, but it can also be the source of great joy. My relationship with Ava Gardner was absolutely glorious that way. Ava came to see me one time after she‘d been married to Sinatra for a while. She was having trouble with him, and she said to me, ”When we were, you know, doing it“ — that was her way of saying it — ”was it good?“ I said, ”If everything else had been anywhere near as good, we’d have been together forever and I‘d never have let you out of my sight.“ She gave a sigh of relief. I asked why. She said, ”With him it’s impossible.“ I said I thought he was a big stud. She said, ”No, it‘s like being in bed with a woman.“
Did you think Sinatra was talented?
He was very good at what he did, if you care about that. Personally, I find it hard to believe that a man can walk around with his head filled with those lyrics: ”I get a kick out of you . . .“ That shit he did. He wanted it very badly, though, and he’s the only guy who could‘ve come along and put Bing Crosby away, because Bing was a hell of a singer at his best. After Louis Armstrong, he was the first great jazz singer. Sure, he did horseshit like ”White Christmas“ — he had to, it’s part of the lexicon. But he was a long way from square. He was a terrible person, but so was Frank. I don‘t care about Sinatra. He bores the shit out of me.
Why did you leave Ava Gardner?
I left for New York, and she was afraid to leave Hollywood. She was being paid like a star, and the studios were beginning to think of her as a star, and when I told her I was going to New York, she said, ”They’ll forget me if I leave.“ She was terrified because, like every great beauty, she knew what was ahead for her. She didn‘t know who she was. She was a Tarheel kid with an earthy quality people responded to, but inside she was highly wound up and had a terror of failing. Ava was one in the continuing series of Hollywood queens, and they all understand in some dim way that gravity’s working on them, pulling everything an inch and a half lower, and pretty soon the next 17-year-old will come along. You can‘t compete with that, and if that’s what you‘re selling, you have to face the fact that the merchandise gets shopworn. Eventually you can’t sell it for the same price, and in Hollywood, when you drop, you drop fast.
I have a photograph of Sinatra and Ava that I call ”The Singer and the Movie Star,“ and I keep it because it‘s symbolic of a world I was once part of. She’s on his arm, and he‘s looking back at her with a look that says, ”Boy! Look what I got!“ She’s staring straight into the camera, and they‘re not even remotely connected to one another. Both are busy playing the roles they’ve cast themselves in. She‘s thinking, ”What do people think of me?“ while he’s thinking, ”Look what I got!“ It‘s not important enough to be tragic — it’s just foolish. What a meager life.
Your other ultraglamour wife was Lana Turner. What was she like?
Lana was dumb, and she bought into the myth. But then, they all did. Success is the great devil. You read enough about yourself, and you begin to think it‘s true — I’m special, I‘m different, I’m superior. I know, because it happened to me. You know, John Updike once said the damned- est thing in The New Yorker. I couldn‘t believe my eyes when I saw it, and the sentence is engraved in my memory. I noticed he was writing about Lana Turner, so my eyes pricked up. I thought, ”What the hell is this?“ Because he knows damn well she’s an airhead. He said as much in the review, then added, ”But if you want to know how boring it was to go to bed with Artie Shaw, this is your book.“ Updike doesn‘t usually engage in that sort of mudslinging, but he is a man, so he’s probably got some kind of penis problem. Still, I was floored that Updike would give a moment‘s thought to what I’m like in bed. It reminds me of the time Frank Conroy was visiting me and I showed him this satirical, mock-academic introduction I‘d written for my new book. He loved it and asked for a copy because, he said, Saul Bellow was coming to see him and he thought Bellow would enjoy it. I said, ”You can have a copy if you promise not to tell him who wrote it until he’s read it.“ Frank called me a few weeks later and told me, ”Bellow loved the piece.“ But when Frank told him who‘d written it, he said, ”Artie Shaw?“ I knew Saul, and I guess he couldn’t stand it that I knew something about literature.
So, the big question: Why did you quit your career as a musician?
I have a low threshold for boredom. We‘re told you have to make money, be successful and have a big house in Beverly Hills, but that’s all horseshit. I never had a a big band again after 1949, and that last one was a bitch. Everybody liked it but the people [audience], so I decided no more. Then the IRS started punishing me for making some money three years earlier and I needed to work, so I put together a small group that people said was the best small band they‘d ever heard. After a year of playing, I couldn’t stand it anymore. The same pieces night after night after night — no matter how many changes you make, it becomes sickening, so I broke it up. I wanted to record what the group was doing, though, before we went our separate ways, but nobody wanted to record us. Everybody said, ”There‘s no audience for this music,“ which was sort of semimodern and boppish. I said, ”To hell with this,“ and rented a studio, produced the records myself, put them in storage and moved to Spain. I lived outside a small village in Catalonia for five years, and for a while it was blissful. I fished every day, and America seemed completely remote. I finally began to miss Ralphs supermarket, though, and people kept telling me things were getting better in the States, so I came back. Things weren’t getting better, though. I turned on the television when I got back, and the first thing I saw was Lawrence Welk.
I finally put those last recordings of mine out, in 1986, and that is the music people who know anything point to and say, ”That‘s when he played good.“ The amazing thing is that I’m alive to see it. Van Gogh never did get to see what happened.
To what do you attribute your longevity?
The analysis I went through taught me to accept who I am, and that‘s what pulled me through. Analysis put me into contact with areas of myself that I was unaware of, and they would’ve killed me by now. My attempt at perfection was always there and was never satisfied, and that‘s a tough way to live. The constant hatred of what I was, which was deep down in there, the constant disrespect for what I was doing . . . those things would’ve murdered me by now.
Do you still consider yourself a musician?
Not a working one, but some things can‘t be erased. It’s still going on in my head and in my sleep, and I hear subtleties in music that drive me crazy when I‘m out at a restaurant and there’s something playing. I can‘t help thinking like a musician. I wake up and there are chord sequences going on. I miss playing — you couldn’t do it on my level and not miss it — but it would kill me if I tried now, because I can‘t play what I hear in my head.
What do you listen to for pleasure?
Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven‘s A-minor Quartet — I don’t listen to much trivia anymore, and I don‘t listen to singers. People send me tapes, and I listen and say, ”Yeah, another diva, so what?“ The Beatles didn’t do much musically. Sure, they wrote some nice little songs, but ”Jingle Bells“ is nice, too. There isn‘t any new jazz to listen to, and I’ve heard the old stuff over and over and over.
What‘s the most pleasurable part of your day?
When the phone stops ringing and I can read without being interrupted.
What are the qualities of a life fully lived?
A sense of having accomplished something you respect. There are things I’ve done that I know are as good as it gets. I think people are entitled to be judged by their best, because everything else is accidents that happen along the way. When a guy does something important, he deserves credit, because it‘s hard to do. You do it in spite of the world.