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Summit Ridge Drive: The Genius of Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw. Courtesy bigbandlibrary.

This edition of Riverwalk Jazz devoted to the artistry of Artie Shaw features music from his most prolific period. Renowned as a clarinetist, bandleader, composer and arranger, Shaw retains his place in history as one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century.

 

Two outstanding clarinetists Bobby Gordon and Allan Vaché—both longtime associates of The Jim Cullum Jazz Band— join us on stage at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento to celebrate the music of Artie Shaw,.

 

During the 1930s and 40s when Saturday night rolled around, couples headed to local ballrooms to dance to the sounds of their favorite big bands. As part of the evening's entertainment, swing bands often featured a smaller ensemble, a "band within a band." These small groups had a hotter, more improvised sound, much less structured than the big band sound.

 

Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra had the Clambake Seven. Bob Crosby's Orchestra had the Bob Cats. Benny Goodman had the Benny Goodman Trio. And, Artie Shaw had a small ensemble he called The Gramercy Five, named after a New York City telephone exchange. In keeping with this "chamber jazz" small-band concept, Ron Hockett created several special arrangements featured on this week's radio show.

 

Gramercy Five record label. Image courtesy youtube.

In the late 30s and early 40s Shaw made a series of classic recordings based on his own compositions and works from the golden age of the American Popular Songbook. Shaw's big band interpretation of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" was number one on Your Hit Parade for months; in 1940 he had another popular hit with "Frenesi." In the same period, he wrote a blues called "Summit Ridge Drive" for his group The Gramercy Five, his small jazz ensemble within his big band.

 

Artie Shaw always wanted to be perceived as an "artist" rather than an entertainer, or even a jazz musician. He once said, "Art happens when somebody with skill loves what he is doing and works at the absolute top level of his ability."

 

Says Jim Cullum Jazz Band clarinetist Ron Hockett: "Artie would have just about any type of tune in his repertoire as long as it had musical interest. "Copenhagen" was a jazz piece from the early 20s written by Charlie Davis and recorded by Bix Beiderbecke's first group, the Wolverines, and by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Shaw was about 14 years old when these records came out, and they must have held a special place in his heart. Of course, he was influenced by Bix throughout his career.

 

Artie Shaw. Photo courtesy jazzwax.

"I would say the three of us who play clarinet on this radio show have all been influenced by Shaw's great playing. Bobby has a warm tone and lyrical style that Shaw favored. Artie was a master of high notes, and Allan really uses the highest notes to great effect and also plays with a lot of energy. I try to play with Artie's smooth technique and singing tone, and hopefully it always swings."

 

Artie Shaw stopped playing clarinet in public in 1954; he was only 44 years old. After his retirement from the music business he devoted his full time to writing and wrote several books, including an autobiography called The Trouble with Cinderella, still in print. He did occasional lecturing on literature, art and music in various colleges, as well as appearing on TV documentaries. As his former wife Ava Gardner once said, "Artie could go on about every subject in the world, and for that matter, a few outside it as well."

 

Photo credit for home page teaser image: Artie Shaw. Photo courtesy nndb.com.

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