The Hard Life of a Jazz Man

One word to describe Artie Shaw, clarinetist and popular big band leader from the 1930s and ’40s, might be turbulent. This word describes the personal life of a man whose marriages to eight women, including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, all ended in either divorce or annulment. It describes the professional life of a man who became rich from the music fans he often despised. And it describes the health of a man who pushed himself so hard that it led to hospitalization and even to a medical discharge from the navy in 1944.

But through it all, Shaw was a champion of jazz as a musical art form. His became one of the first big bands to integrate when he hired Billie Holiday as vocalist. And when his primary competition, Benny Goodman, was bestowed the label “King of Swing,” fans dubbed Shaw “King of the Clarinet.”

In 1939, Shaw took a moment to comment in the Post about what life as a jazz musician had been like for him. Shaw was known for being brutally candid, and this article follows suit as Shaw writes about his success and the aggravation, disillusionment, and sacrifice that came with it.

This post was published to mark National Jazz Appreciation Month. You can read more of the Post’s historical stories from and about jazz legends in “Jazz History by Men Who Made It.”

Music Is a Business

First page of the Post article by Artie Shaw
‘Music is a Business’ by Artie Shaw

By Artie Shaw, with Bob Maxwell

Originally published December 2, 1939

A year ago, I paid the last $5 installment on my clarinet. When I walked out of the band-instrument store I had a signed receipt and forty-seven cents in cash.

My lawyer and business manager tells me my net income for 1939 will be in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars. These aren’t press-agent figures. The last theater date I played brought in $25,000 for a two-week engagement. A recording company pays me $6,000 to cut three phonograph records — an afternoon’s work. A college-prom date is good for as much as $3,500.

I’m not trying to bowl anyone over with telephone-number finance. I simply want to show there’s money in music — plenty of it. When America dances, it pays its pipers well. And yet, despite that I earn close to $5,000 a week, I’d think twice before advising anyone to follow in my footsteps. Probably it’s because I learned, during my illness on the Coast, that while a quarter of a million will buy a lot of things, it won’t buy the energy you blew out making it. I learned it the hard way, at the expense of almost losing my life.

I was plenty frightened when they stretched me out on an operating table and began pumping other people’s blood into my veins. A number of magazine and radio-station polls had elected me King of Swing, but the bugs inside me had no respect for royalty. I overheard a nurse whisper something about one chance in a hundred, and that capped the climax.

The Letdown After the Build-up

They wouldn’t let me talk or move a muscle, but they couldn’t stop me from thinking — even with a temperature of 106°. I looked back into the months that had been a build-up for this letdown. The one-night stands, the long brutal jumps from town to town in rainstorms and blizzards, the bottles of aspirin I had consumed to keep me going and blowing. What for? To die at 28?

Bix Beiderbecke, my roommate, had blown his heart out in much the same way. Irregular hours, no recreation, food on the run, nervous tension. Sooner or later, it’s bound to get you. The doctors who pulled me through my siege tell me it may happen again if I’m not careful. It won’t. I’ll be out of the band business before it gets another chance to lay me low, because the musician in America hasn’t only a financial and artistic problem with which to contend, but he must fight politics, corruption, and a system of patronage.

I’m not biting the hand that feeds me. My job is to play music, not politics, and my only obligation is to the people who pay to listen to me. I don’t attempt to ram hackneyed, insipid tunes down the public’s throat just because they’ve been artificially hypoed to the so-called “hit” class. This policy of trying to maintain some vestige of musical integrity has, naturally, earned me enemies, people who think I’m a long hair, impressed with my own ability. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My faith in dance music — I refuse to call it swing — borders on the fanatic. I have the utmost respect for the many real musicians who are creating a new music as important as the classics, but I have no respect for musical clowns who lead an orchestra with a baton and a quip. However, more power to them if they can make it pay.

A Case of Too Many Charlatans

All this has really been a preamble to what I want to get off my chest. Actually, this is the first time I’ve been able to talk without that necessary evil — a press agent — at my elbow. Publicity men possess vivid imaginations. Legend is their business. I have to be a personality, an eccentric genius who combs his hair with the jawbone of a hummingbird and reads Aristotle in the original Greek.

For once I’d like to let down that jawbone-combed hair and talk, not so much about myself, but about the future of dance music in the land of its birth. At the same time, I want to answer the question that has been put to me in fan letters: How can I learn to lead a band?

Strangely enough, the future of what, in lieu of a better term, we can call jazz is tied up with the desires of close to half a million amateur musicians to emulate the success achieved by the big band leaders.

Anyone can lead a dance band. At least, anyone could lead many of today’s name bands. None of them need leaders — and very few have them. The average bandleader is only a front, a window dressing. If he has capable musicians behind him and imaginative arrangers behind the musicians, it doesn’t matter whether he’s on or off the platform — the music will sound the same. One of the best-known dance bands in the country is “led” by a man who, literally, can’t read a note of music.

There are, of course, exceptions. Duke Ellington, for one. Duke is a musician. Jazz means more to him than a cacophony of blasting brasses or the saccharin strains of a corny ballad. I wish every amateur musician could sit in on an Ellington rehearsal. Music is made on the spur of the moment, ad lib. Phrasing is born of inspiration. The man lives it.

The point I want to make is simply this: If Young America, practicing on its saxophones, trombones, clarinets, basses, and drums, is interested in preserving the future of dance music, it had better not look to many of the reigning favorites of the day. Unfortunately, popular music in America is 10 percent art and 90 percent business. As a result, it boasts more than its share of charlatans and lacks its share of honest, intelligent critics.

Certainly an art appealing to millions deserves better treatment. As it is now, musical worth is measured not by how well a man handles his instrument or directs his orchestra, but by his personality, his love life, and his glibness of tongue. Mountebanks have cheapened popular music to such an extent that a wisecrack or a catch phrase becomes more important to their success than the music they play. The only saving grace seems to be that the public soon learns to weed the musical bad from the musical good.

There are two ways to build a band — the hard way and the easy way. The easy way requires high-powered exploitation, and high-powered exploitation requires money. Give me $50,000, 14 good musicians, and a press agent, and I’ll make Joe Doakes, who doesn’t know a C scale from a snare drum, one of the most popular band leaders in America.

A variation of the easy way involves selling yourself and your band down the river and letting Big Business hold the reins. This happens time and time again, and each time it does, another shackle is placed on the art of popular music. Whenever you hear of a band or leader achieving overnight popularity, don’t attribute it to a lucky break or accident. Accidents happen rarely in the music business, but they can be made to happen. It’s amazing what a powerful booking office or music publisher can do to assist a new band up the ladder.

The Easy Way to the Top

Take the case of a leader who recently burst into prominence like a meteor. He is, incidentally, a good musician, but that alone did not account for his sudden rise. What happened was this: A smart manager sensed possibilities in the band and made arrangements to promote it. He saw to it that the band recorded tunes that were destined to be in the hit class and put cold cash into the exploitation of the band. He arranged with a booking office to put the band in a night spot with a network wire, thus guaranteeing it two or three coast-to-coast air shots a week. In short, this favored leader hurdled obstacles that, to a new band, normally would be almost insurmountable. Whether or not he can stay on top is something else.

There are important monetary drawbacks to success achieved in this manner. Perhaps the manager has a piece of the band — say 25 percent. Possibly the booking office owns another 25 percent. A big song publisher may have 15 percent. In some cases, bands are incorporated businesses with dozens of outsiders holding shares. Even if the band reaches the top, the leader finds his share of the profits slim. Then, too, the leader who accepts help of this kind is always in debt to those who helped him. He’ll have to give his publisher-benefactor’s songs a plug whether they’re good or bad. He’ll have to record tunes he knows aren’t worth putting on wax. He’s owned, musically, and he does his owner’s bidding unless he reaches the point where he can buy back what amounts to his musical birthright.

Now, the hard way — the way almost every budding leader will have to take — the way that is likely to make an old man of you at 30. Since my own career serves as a fair example of the hard way, perhaps I will be forgiven a little autobiographical data.

Being dead broke when I paid up for my clarinet was purely of my own doing. I had been earning $500 a week playing in NBC and Columbia house bands — Kostelanetz, Barlow, Shilkret, Romberg, Rich, and others. I gave it up because I had an idea I could be happier writing. Bix Beiderbecke had been my friend and now Bix was dead. The story of his short but brilliant life deserved to be told, and I thought I could tell it. I bought a small Bucks County, Pennsylvania, farm and went to work. It took a year for me to discover that a typewriter isn’t a clarinet. I gave it up.

When I returned to New York early in 1936, nobody wanted a clarinet. At least, they didn’t want me. I remember my first day in town. From ten until two I toured the studios and offices. All I got was the story I shouldn’t have quit the business cold when it was paying me good money. From two until four I sat on a park bench getting more and more panicky. All I knew was music. If I couldn’t sell that, what could I sell? At four I called my mother to tell her the situation. She had a message for me. A swing concert for charity was being given at the Imperial Theater and I was invited to play a clarinet solo.

I accepted — but not as a soloist. I had always felt that a string background for a hot clarinet would wed the best of sweet and swing as it was being interpreted at the moment. At least, it would be novel and might attract some attention. I convinced a string quartet the idea had merit. We went to work.

Three hours before the concert, one of my fiddle players landed a job for the night and I had to get a substitute. We sat backstage while every big-name orchestra in the business played to thunderous applause. Brass … brass … and more brass. Raucous, ear-splitting. The louder the music, the more the rafters rang. And here I was with two fiddles, a viola, a cello, and a clarinet — a chamber-music group in a house packed with jitterbugs!

Mention the incident to my press agent now and he’ll tell you we were colossal. We were a little short of that, but the following day, three major recording companies offered to put us on wax, and I signed with a booking office to develop a larger band using the same basic idea — string interludes and backgrounds against a jazz combination.

The band went into the Hotel Lexington. Don’t imagine you can get a choice hotel or night-spot booking by applying to the manager. Every worthwhile location — with a radio wire — is tied up by one of the large booking offices, and if your band isn’t handled by the office controlling a certain hotel, you’ll never get into it — well, hardly ever — unless you’re Gabriel blowing a diamond-studded trumpet.

The string-reed band was no bombshell at the Lexington. Musically it had everything, but the shaggers wanted hot brass and wild drum solos. We played the French Casino and the Paramount Theater, reputedly the home of the jitterbug, with mediocre success. At this point, my booking office advised me to take the band on the road for seasoning. Although it was — and still is — the accepted practice to season a new band with one-night stands, I should have known that if New York refused to go into raptures over us and thought us lukewarm, we would die in the hinterlands.

Die we did. The band chalked up new box-office lows wherever it appeared. Back to New York we came. The office was sorry, but the idea seemed to be a floperoo. They paid off and called it quits.

The dismal failure of the string band convinced me it was financial suicide to try to sell the public on anything novel without tremendous backing. My only chance was to get together the standard combination and beat the topnotchers at their own game. Another booking office was talked into taking a flier on me. Somehow, I found three trumpets, two trombones, four saxes, and a rhythm section. The booking office wanted me to open at a small New York spot, but I balked. This was my last chance. That audience at the Imperial Theater had misled me once. No single audience was going to mislead me again. We’d open out of town and play for as many people as possible before risking a New York showing.

We hit the road in an old truck we had bought from Tommy Dorsey. It had Tommy’s name painted on both sides, weather-beaten but legible. Until we had enough money to pay for repainting the body, we were stopped three times for having stolen it. A cop in Boston arrested our Negro driver and tossed him in the can. He had heard Tommy Dorsey broadcasting from New York an hour before. We left our driver in jail, the truck in the police yard, and went on to our next stand by bus!

I had decided, long before we left New York, that come what may, the band wasn’t falling into the melodic groove dug by any other swing outfit. The only way to avoid it would be to keep the so-called pop tunes out of our books. Playing the things everyone else was playing would only serve to type us. I had written some originals, and these, together with old musical-comedy songs I felt had merit, made up our repertoire. The boys in the band thought I was making a mistake. I argued that dancers would go for good arrangements of songs old or new.

We spent two weary years on the road, playing every hamlet in New England and the Middle West, making 600-mile jumps overnight to earn a top fee of $250 — for five or six hours of playing in a stuffy hall or an ex-barn from which the cows had only recently been evicted. Two years of seasoning and heartbreak — when a hotel room was a luxury shared by three brass players, a drummer, and their instruments. We’d finish at Scranton, Pennsylvania, at two in the morning, grab a bite to eat, crowd into the truck and two used cars we had picked up, and make Youngstown, Ohio, 350 miles away, by noon the next day. We had devised a system for getting the equivalent of two nights’ sleep for a one-night hotel fee. When we hit a town in the morning we’d register and turn in immediately, sleeping until it was time to show up for the engagement. Finished playing, we’d return to the hotel and sleep the night through, driving to our next date the following day. That happened every other day and saved us plenty of much-needed money.

Time and again I was on the verge of throwing it all up. Everything seemed to happen to make things tough. We had what we considered a choice engagement to play a Cornell college prom at Ithaca. The two cars went on ahead, with the truck following. The truck landed at Utica, ninety miles away. We played for the prom with four men, the drummer beating it out on a large dishpan !

Gas for the cars was always a problem. They were old and they drank it fast. Once we had to resort to using a police teletype system to send an urgent message to New York for gas money. Two things kept me from quitting: The knowledge that if I did I was through for good, and because I could see the band shaping up. We began to get calls to return to towns we had already played. I felt safe in trying out innovations. They clicked. We dug up tunes like “Donkey Serenade” and “Zigeuner” — long relegated to dusty shelves — and audiences liked them.

Our booking office began phoning long distance. We were ripe for New York and they had a spot for us. I talked it over with the boys, most of whom had been with the band from the start and knew what had happened before. We decided not to come in, but we made a concession. We would accept dates where there were radio wires. If New York wanted to hear us it would have to be over the air.

How to Get Publicity

How we rehearsed for those short 15-minute and half-hour shots. Everything was against us — microphone setup, acoustics, everything. The best band in the world can sound like an off-key hurdy-gurdy if the balance isn’t right. Most of the time we worked with a portable control board that went on the blink two or three times during the broadcast. But we managed and it couldn’t have been too bad. The trade papers sat up and took notice and radio editors said kind things. Nothing succeeds like success.

We worked East and opened at New England’s Roseland State Ballroom in March 1938. Here we had our first real taste of public acclaim — minus the remuneration that is generally supposed to go with it. The kids liked us, and glowing reports went back to New York. But the summer season was coming on, so we stayed out of the Big City, biding our time for a fall opening. It came in October 1938, when we went into the Blue Room at the Hotel Lincoln. The Lincoln had not been a good spot for bands, but that didn’t bother us. We knew we had it this time.

There was no money in the Lincoln engagement. As a matter of fact, there’s no money in any hotel engagement. Although a theater date now pays me $12,500 a week, there isn’t a hotel in the country able to afford more than $4,000 for music. But top bands willingly take that, and usually a lot less, to get a precious radio wire. Some of them even lose money playing a hotel, but if your name and music go out coast-to-coast four or five times a week, you’re getting publicity that would cost a young fortune to buy — publicity that builds you up to the point where you can demand really big money for theater and out-of-town engagements, proms, recordings, and commercials.

The Great God Mike

Here ends the rags-to-riches saga which, I hope, will serve as an example of how tough the band business can be. Mind you, too, I was no stranger to it. I had been playing in bands from the time I was 14 and had achieved a certain reputation as a clarinetist. Imagine what would have happened if I had been a country boy out of the West with my horn under my arm.

This is as good a time as any to explain further the hotel-band situation, probably one of the greatest obstacles to a newcomer in the field. All the choice spots with radio wires are tied up by contract to three or four big booking agencies. Although a hotel may want my band badly enough to offer a comparatively high price, I can’t ordinarily be booked unless my office controls the hotel. Once in a blue moon this rule is broken by agreement, but it’s mighty rare. Of course, this control changes hands over a period of years as contracts expire, but still it’s almost axiomatic in the business that if a band isn’t booked through one of the Big Four offices, it hasn’t a chance of ever playing a decent spot.

Radio, more than anything else, is responsible for this frantic fight to tie up wired hotel spots. The Great God Microphone is deity to the bandsman, and he worships at its shrine. As a result, enter another major obstacle to the newcomer. The three big broadcasting chains — NBC, CBS, and Mutual — are naturally eager to put only the top bands on the air. It’s a feather in a chain’s cap if it can offer member stations the pick of dance bands. Picture, then, this situation. A new band has been taken on by one of the big booking offices and a wired hotel spot arranged. Three shots a week, coast-to-coast. Absolutely perfect. Who steps in but the broadcasting chain! That three-time wire is precious. Why should they waste the hook-up on a comparative unknown when they can get Shep Fields or Dick Himber? Put someone else in the hotel, the chain suggests. A name band.

You may think I’m painting a very dismal picture, but any honest leader will tell you it’s practically photographic. The public read the fan magazines, learn about Tommy Dorsey’s estate and my new roadster, and figure it’s good money for little work. It is good money — when you get it. Musicianship isn’t the requisite for success. Honesty of purpose isn’t an essential. If, in Broadway parlance, you can finagle, you’ll get places. For instance, few leaders play a new song solely because they think it’s good. They play it only when a publisher assures them it will be the firm’s No. 1 tune — the tune the publisher is going to work on and put money behind. They take no chances of introducing a song and then having it die on them, because they have no faith in their own ability to make a song. And yet they pride themselves on having introduced this hit and that hit. I’m much prouder for having rescued a really good number like “Begin the Beguine” and brought it to public attention.

Song pluggers, whose business it is to talk leaders into playing their company’s tunes, can’t understand my refusing to play musical monstrosities. Why, every band in the country is featuring it! Fifty-five major plugs last week! It’s No. 3 on the Song Parade! So what? It isn’t music, or at least it isn’t my conception of music. If music has to depend on slapstick comedy for its appeal, I’ll throw my horn away. The mere fact that a piece is a hit means nothing. Enough hypoing will make any song a hit.

I never should have been a success or made money in the music business. Having broken every rule and regulation for subservience, having fed the public songs everyone was convinced the public didn’t want to hear, I should have been out in the cold a long time ago. Some big people in the business think I’m either cracked or a poseur. They refuse to believe that, with me, music is first.

That’s why I have more than faint misgivings for the future of dance music in America; misgivings for those who are talented among the amateurs. The making of music — whether it be classical or jazz — is an art.

If the bands of the future are to be led by wisecracking comedians and pash-voiced tenors, a sound talent for music will not be required. But if jazz returns to the golden era of its birth, when every member of a band was a musician at heart, the road to success will be tougher traveling, though far more satisfying.

I’d like very much to lead the way. I’ve always wanted to write the things I feel. Since I can’t do it with a typewriter, maybe I can do it with a clarinet.