Magic Wand | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Magic Wand

Clarinetist Artie Shaw's recordings recall the nostalgic power of the big-band sound

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Psychologists tell us that our sense of smell conjures up some of our deepest emotional memories. Take a deep whiff of baby powder and you might be transported about as far back as you can go. (You're hungry, you’re cranky...better loosen your grip on that powder tin.) Our sense of hearing, however, must rank a close second as a time machine. In particular, it's the nature of music to flash us back to when and where we first heard a song or a fragment of a symphonic theme or, maddeningly, an inane sitcom theme. Melody and memory are constant companions. I was drawn to classical music not by my mother's playing of Chopin, but by the radio adventures of the Lone Ranger and the show's theme tunes—borrowed from Rossini and Liszt. I can never hear the overture to William Tell or Les Preludes without picturing myself sitting on a deep, striped sofa in my parents' house in Westfield, New Jersey, listening intently to a radio twice my size.

For many people of a certain age, the sound of classic swing music is the mnemonic key to the past. The famous bands arose at a time when entertainment was an integral element in America's emergence from hard times, as well as a salve for increasing anxiety about the distant rumble of war. Each of the top ensembles played songs that both defined the band and the times, hits such as Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls," Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," and Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." When Goodman's band, featuring Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, brought jazz to Carnegie Hall in 1938, swing was king. For many fans, young jitterbuggers then who now look back fondly on the big beat and the big brass of swing, no bandleader better epitomizes the era than Artie Shaw, and no song opens the door to that dramatic, romantic time more evocatively than "Begin the Beguine."

In 1935, Cole Porter wrote the song for a Broadway show called Jubilee. The musical died young, but "Begin the Beguine" lived on, in no small measure because of Artie Shaw's brilliant rendition. Fittingly, the song lyric is itself about memory—"When they begin the beguine/It brings back the sound of music so tender..."—and few who listened to Shaw's 1938 recording of the tune can forget the splendor of his clarinet's melodic line. That clarinet, a Selmer, is one of two that Shaw has donated to the Smithsonian. (The other is a Buffet that the bandleader used with his quintet, the Gramercy 5; the Selmer, Shaw says, had more "shout" than the sweeter, woodier Buffet, making it better in front of a big band.) For romantic couples and jazz lovers before, during and long after World War II, these clarinets are nothing less than magic wands, and they join a collection of numinous instruments that includes Lionel Hampton's vibraphone, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet and Tito Puente's timbales.

Shaw's band was well on the road to success by 1938, the year he recorded the Porter tune as an instrumental. The record sold more than a million copies—a tremendous number in those 78 r.p.m. days—and within a year or so the band, with the handsome, tuxedo-clad Shaw doing clarinet solos, was earning a reported $60,000 a week. Though today the 93-year-old Shaw describes "Begin the Beguine" merely as "a nice little tune from one of Cole Porter's very few flop shows," the power of his version turned it into the theme song of countless courtships.

Although the record was made the year I was born, it was such a standard in later years that I can still remember my feeling, every time I heard it as a teenager (in those pre-rock 'n' roll years), that this melody carried all the magic and mystery of what it meant to be a grown-up. I had no idea that a beguine was a rumba-like dance from the islands of Martinique and St. Lucia, nor the remotest notion of what "a night of tropical splendor" might comprise, but Shaw's playing struck the same responsive chord within me as it did within my parents.

The reaction must have been nearly universal, because the record became one of the biggest sellers of its era, and Shaw rose to such iconic status that, in the late 1930s, on the eve of World War II, Time magazine reported that the German public thought of America as "skyscrapers, Clark Gable, and Artie Shaw."

Shaw, a teenage saxophonist who switched to the clarinet, began playing professionally shortly after leaving his Connecticut home at the age of 15. A few years later he discovered two disparate geniuses—Igor Stravinsky and Louis Armstrong—and the influence of these two musical pioneers led him to play and compose classical music as well as swing and jazz. After Pearl Harbor, Shaw joined the Navy, formed a band, and played throughout the Pacific as MacArthur's island-hopping advances unfolded. In 1954, Shaw, still tremendously popular, retired from music—perhaps deciding he wanted to quit at the top of his game. He went on to become a nationally ranked marksman and expert fly fisherman. When asked recently if he still practiced on his clarinets, he said, "I haven't played them for 50 years."

Which, for anyone listening today to his rapturous versions of "Begin the Beguine," "Frenesi" and "Stardust," seems a shame. As Smithsonian curator John Hasse said at the donation ceremony for Shaw's clarinets, "His playing was virtuosic, lyrical and passionate. Gifted with a sensitivity to melody, Shaw was a master of melodic invention and paraphrase, as he created, on the spot, compositional perfection in his solos." The highest accolade for any artist is that his or her work cannot be imagined any other way; Shaw's solos, Hasse said, sounded "logical and inevitable."

Inevitably, Shaw was compared to the equally gifted clarinetist, Benny Goodman; the public, he says, perceived the two musicians as engaged in a kind of performers' duel. Yet he dismisses the idea of any such competition. "You have to have a sound that is yours," he says. "You're not in a footrace, after all."

Looking back on his brilliant career, Shaw tends not to make too much of his talent or his instruments. He even says, with casual heresy, that for the recording of "Stardust" he used a less expensive plastic reed. "The difference between players," he says, "is in the details. You're never completely happy with your playing. Sometimes you come close, but those occasions are very rare. I call myself an 80 percent loser."

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About Owen Edwards
Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

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