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."
Shaw was born Arthur Arshawsky in New York City to Russian and Austrian Jewish parents and grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. His Jewish background is key to understanding the Jazz Age and how many of the White musicians of the time fit into it. While jazz may have been invented and perfected by Black musicians, it was often Jewish musicians, like Shaw, Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, and Paul Whiteman who brought the music to the masses. And it was in New York, where Black and Jewish newcomers arrived in huge numbers in the decades before the 20s that the two groups would coalesce. Jewish musicians essentially acted as a bridge between the Black and White cultures of America. The new sounds of a persecuted minority resonated with Jewish young people who could empathize with the difficulties of life in America as a second-class citizen, subject to segregation and demagoguery. But their European features often gave them an appeal to mainstream audiences that Black musicians could never match. Not only that, many large clubs and theaters refused to allow Black musicians to play and limited their exposure to White audiences. Shaw, like many other Jewish bandleaders, respected and admired his Black counterparts and did all he could to try to de-segregate the music industry. He was the first White bandleader to hire a full-time Black lead singer, a good decision since the singer was Billie Holiday. Unfortunately, the difficulty in pulling off this integration was made clear on their first tour together. Billie quit the band after dealing with constant racism and segregation from club-owners and audiences on tour.
"Nightmare" is a great example of that blending of Black and Jewish cultures. Shaw was a master jazz clarinetist, but it wasn't just hot jazz that informed Shaw's style. He was a great fan of classical music from Debussy and Stravinsky and would often try to incorporate classical elements into his music. His first big hit was called "Interlude in B Minor" and featured his smooth, jazzy clarinet over a classical strings accompaniment. "Nightmare" took the fusion of Black and Jewish sounds even farther by taking its inspiration from a cantor's nigun, a musical feature of Hasidic religious services.
But it wasn't just a Hasidic influence that signaled Shaw's unique personality. A theme song was a band's intro, played as soon as the MC announced the performers. It began, and ended, concerts and radio broadcasts. It was the band and the bandleader's signature. Most chose upbeat and danceable hits like Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train." But "Nightmare" sounds like the opening credits to a horror movie or a Twilight Zone episode. The woodwinds and percussion slowly keep a steady and unaltering rythym while the horns seem to scream the song's first impression. Eventually Shaw's trumpet brings the song back to reality with his characteristic silky runs. But the final horn crescendo would fit right into a Hitchcock climax. Shaw's personality was similarly unsettled. He often would break up his bands when the pressures of fitting into commercial styles irked his artistic ambitions. He went through 8 wives in his life, including Ava Gardner, but most marriages lasted only a few years. He would attempt to infuse his music with classical, afro-caribbean, salsa, and bebop, often alienating fans and critics. He eventually retired from music for good in the 50s and spent time becoming an author, expert marksman, and top fly-fisherman. He remained enigmatic and reclusive for most of his life, but his music continued to influence new generations of musicians to blend different styles into the fabric of jazz. And just so you can see him in action, check him out in action playing his biggest hit, "Begin the Beguin."