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Artie Shaw Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw is an NEA Jazz Master

Artie Shaw, a brilliant jazz clarinetist, was one of the most enigmatic, daring and adventurous bandleaders of the swing-era. An intellectual, he hated public life and the music industry. Over the course of his short career he formed ten orchestras and disbanding most of them after only a few months. At the peak of his career in the years just before World War II, Shaw was matched by few other musicians in popularity and technical skill.

Born Arthur Arshawsky in New York City and raised in Connecticut, Shaw took up the saxophone at an early age and began playing professionally when he was only 14. He left home at 15 for a job in Kentucky. The position never materialized and he was forced to play with traveling orchestras in order to get home. At age 16 he switched to the clarinet and went to Cleveland, where he spent three years playing in local groups, including that of Austin Wylie.

In 1929 Shaw joined Irving Aaronson's Commanders. While traveling the country with the band he discovered the works of contemporary avant-garde classical composers whose influence would later surface in his own music. When the Commanders arrived for a gig in New York, Shaw decided to remain. There he freelanced with many of the top artists of the day, including Vincent Lopez, Red Nichols, and Teddy Wilson. He also briefly spent time with Fred Rich's orchestra and toured with Roger Wolfe Kahn.

In 1934 Shaw became disillusioned with the music industry and quit for the first of what would be many times. He bought a farm in Pennsylvania and tried his hand at being a writer. He soon returned to New York and took up studio work again. He was one of the most successful studio musicians in the city when in 1935 he was asked to lead a small group during intermissions at a swing concert held by the Imperial Theater. He put together an unusual outfit consisting of a string quartet, a rhythm section minus piano, and his clarinet.

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