Artie Shaw and his orchestra this weekend. I’ve spent a lot of time going on about the post-war demise of the Big Band and the emergence of the small group and the beginnings of Be-Bop and the spreading popularity of Jump-blues. But I haven’t really spent a whole lot of time on the Big Band era itself – probably because there’s been so much ground covered, and a lot has given itself over to nostalgia and the broad-stoke definitions of Big Bands as purely dance outfits, with only a scant few names being the focus and reference. But truth of the matter; there were just as many sub-genres and innovations going on within the Big Band platform as anywhere else at the time.
Take Artie Shaw for instance; a very popular and influential figure in Jazz of the late 30s-1940s, Shaw introduced strings and non-traditional instruments into the mix – notably the Harpsichord – and that gave band leaders a lot of ideas. Although it’s hard to pinpoint who did what/when – listening to things like the Alec Wilder Octet from the late 1930s and the heavy use of harpsichord or Claude Thornhill from roughy the same time, introducing French Horns and more sophisticated arrangements probably had something to do with what Shaw was up to around this time. One thing is certain; he was one of the first, if not the first prominent White band leader to break the color-barrier, hiring Billie Holiday as his featured singer (although some would argue Benny Goodman may have been the first to break the color barrier with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton) – still, these are innovations in music and culture that had far-reaching affects over the decades.
And even though we don’t think of the Clarinet as an instrument synonymous with Pop Music, both Shaw and Goodman were some of its most eloquent practitioners.
In this broadcast, one done for the Armed Forces Radio Service in October of 1945, the emphasis here is on dancing and entertainment, but even with that, you get an indication there was a lot more going on here. Artie Shaw was an important and integral part of the changing face of Jazz in this country – it’s also a period which could use a bit of looking at purely from a musical and artistic standpoint of view.
If you’re not familiar, check it out. If you are already familiar; it’s preaching to the choir and you’ve already stopped reading this after the first sentence.