Artie Shaw was one of the most popular bandleaders of the Swing Jazz era. A succession of bands he led with his gliding clarinet produced massive hits in the late 30s and his radio audiences and record sales rivaled and sometimes surpassed the popularity of his rival, the great Benny Goodman. He was selling millions of records in 1938 and '39, touring to raucous crowds around the country. He led the most popular band in the nation. And then, he suddenly broke up the band, retreated to Mexico and went quiet.
He would form another, smaller band shortly thereafter but the pattern of break-up and then diverting to a new direction would define Shaw's life and career. He defined the archetype of the reluctant star who disdains his success, spurns his fans, rejects commercial opportunities, pursues a unique artistic vision, constantly seeks new artistic ground, and ultimately gives it all up without a thought to his legacy or future career. It's no wonder that in a musical genre defined by good times and happy feet, his self-penned theme song would be a stark, droning, macabre number called "Nightmare."