Some guys dig ditches, I have a band. It’s what I do.
This week, we’re focusing on some of the reed players of the jazz world. A prominent instrument in early jazz and big band days, the clarinet isn’t featured quite as much in jazz nowadays, but its importance in the past cannot be forgotten and has helped pave the way for the saxophone.
Artie Shaw (1910 – 2004)
Clarinetist Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was better known as Artie Shaw, and he defined what clarinet playing could do in jazz. He earned his stripes in Cleveland, arranging and leading a group here from 1926-1929, and he became staggeringly popular in the 1930’s-1950’s.
Between 1935 and 1954, he and Benny Goodman fought for the monikers of “King of Swing,” and “King of the Clarinet.” In 1954, Shaw retired from playing saying:
“In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last. You have to be Lawrence Welk or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I’m not able to do that, and I have taken the clarinet as far as anyone can possibly go. To continue playing would be a disservice.”
Over the course of his career, he brought Buddy Rich and Billie Holiday to fame in 1939 (and was the first bandleader to hire a black vocalist), and others that found their mark within Shaw’s groups include Mel Tormé, Helen Forrest, Dave Tough, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, and Ray Coniff.
While his audiences wanted to hear him play “Begin the Beguine,” Shaw continually experimented: he often started groups, recorded them and then disbanded them in short order; he was the first to perform Third Stream* jazz sounds; and he experimented with Bop and Afro-Cuban styles.
Outside of music, Shaw was a best selling author, expert marksman, flyfisher, an expert in mathematics, and he appeared in films. He was famously married eight times (including to movie starlets Lana Turner and Ava Gardner), and was known to have affairs with Judy Garland and Lena Horne. Artie Shaw was a restless soul and a Renaissance man.
He is most famous for his brilliant clarinet playing and the ensembles he led, that sold over 100 million records via hits such as “Begin the Beguine,” “Frenesi,” “Moonglow,” “Summit Ridge Drive,” and “Stardust.”
- Listen to “Frenesi” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
- Here’s his hit “Stardust”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
*Third Stream: synthesis of classical & jazz, where improvisation is a key component
Woody Herman (1913 – 1982)
Bandleader and reedman Woody Herman was born into a vaudeville family. He performed onstage at a very young age, but not as a musician. He was first a dancer, billed as “The Boy Wonder,” and then later focused his energies on the saxophone and clarinet.
Herman’s first break came with the Isham Jones (“It Had to Be You”) big band, and when Jones grew weary of the demands of the road, Herman took the band over and led an ensemble from 1936 until his passing. The band’s first big hit was in 1939 with “Woodchopper’s Ball”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
One of the greatest gifts of a Herman led ensemble was that he always tried to keep abreast of shifts in music; whereas the Glenn Miller Orchestra sounds very much the same today as it did in the 1940’s, Herman’s bands continued to morph with the times. One could also be certain to hear the finest young talent in a Herman led group–the list of performers who broke in and played with him is an incredible list (including our own Jim Rupp!). Herman bands always swung and swung hard.
It became customary to name the various versions of the band, and the first was “The Band that Plays the Blues.” As jazz moved from swing to Bebop, the first “Thundering Herd” featured new works by Dizzy Gillespie (“Woody’n You”) and had other hits with “Bijou,” “Caldonia,” and “Laura.” The “Four Brothers” Band followed next with “Four Brothers,” “Early Autumn” and the “Ebony Concerto” written for Herman by Igor Stravinsky.
You can listen to Herman’s Orchestra play Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
The later Herds continued to feature the finest young talent and also moved towards supporting jazz education. While there were times later in Herman’s life where he might not have been able to musically hang with his younger Herds, he still was musically adept in pursuing music trends, and no one in jazz history was better at finding and promoting young talent.
Tony Scott (1921 – 2007)
Born Anthony Joseph Sciacca, clarinetist and arranger Tony Scott had an interesting life and career; however, it was one that sadly wasn’t heard enough, partly due to the sagging popularity of his instrument as a jazz voice.
Scott studied at the Juilliard School of Music in the 1940’s and regularly won DownBeat Magazine awards in the 1950’s in the Best Clarinet category. From the 1950’s, he can be heard on recordings by Sarah Vaughn, Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, and Carmen McRae, as well as on a number of albums as a leader.
He left NYC in 1959 to tour and live in the Far East, and didn’t record or tour in the US much after this time. He became a student of Eastern religions and a great deal of his later music focuses upon the ideas and sounds he learned and lived during this time.
While chiefly known for his bebop work, he also was also associated with new age music, folk music and music from the Far East.
- One of his best known compositions was “Blues for Charlie Parker,” which began as an improvisation at a concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
- From his album Music for Zen Meditation, here is “Za-Zen (Meditation)”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Thanks for sharing the music!