ShawThe clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw was born in 1910 and lived right through to the end of 2004, when he died aged 94. His recording career, however, was much shorter. Shaw was never comfortable with the idea of fame and never got on well with the music industry and his record labels. He even had to fight RCA over the idea of recording his biggest hit “Begin the Beguine” in 1938, which they would only issue as a “B” side. Ironically, when it became a huge seller anyway, Shaw couldn’t handle all the attention, and in November 1939 he walked off the bandstand at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania and disappeared to Mexico for a few months to escape. That time, however, he was back within a year, performing and recording again. But he couldn’t bear the idea of having to play his popular successes again and again, and always resented audiences that wanted to hear “Beguine” rather than anything new he was working on.

So, in 1954, after a 30 year playing career, he put down his clarinet and never played it again. The final gig, with his quintet The Gramercy Five, was in October 1954 at the Embers Club in New York on 52nd Street. Four months earlier, while the group (with a slightly different lineup) was playing in one of the less important bars within the Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas, Shaw had booked a studio in Hollywood and made his last records. These eventually appeared on a ten-inch LP, Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five (volume 3), issued by Clef Records. (They have since been remastered and reissued as a collection). Initially, however, Shaw had to fund the session himself because no record company was interested.

“Yesterdays” is a Jerome Kern ballad that Shaw had previously played in orchestral guise (He was for a while Kern’s son-in-law). The song, which comes from the same show as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, has been popular with jazz musicians because of its strong chord progression, including the distinctive chromatic descent in the second four bars. Shaw, as well as Hank Jones on piano and Joe Puma on guitar, play freely and fluidly well beyond the melody, but best of all is the sound – they are playing quietly with the blend of a chamber ensemble in mind. Shaw had already recorded classical repertoire, but was more eclectic and thoughtful in his classical activities than his rival Benny Goodman. The influence shows here, along with elements of bebob – this was five years before Miles Davis brought the idea of chamber jazz to the attention of a wider audience with Kind of Blue. It shows Shaw at the very peak of his form – which appears to be one of the reasons why he quit. “There comes a point at which you say, Holy Christ, that’s all you can do on this instrument,” Shaw told Gary Giddins. ”There was no point after that”.

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