Artie Shaw, a top big band leader and clarinetist, died Dec. 30 at his home near Los Angeles at 94. Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on New York’s Lower East Side, the son of Jewish immigrant dressmakers, Shaw enjoyed worldwide popularity from the 1930s to the mid-1950s, an era of great Jewish band leaders, who included Benny Goodman, Harry James, Woody Herman and Ziggy Elman.
Dubbed “The Reluctant King of Swing” for his frequent self-imposed exiles from the bandstand, Shaw retired in 1954, at the top of his form. He devoted himself to writing, including his autobiography, “The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity.”
In the book, he described himself as a shy youth, affected by the anti-Semitism he encountered when his family moved to New Haven.
He also wrote that the “really basic reason” for changing his last name was his feeling of insecurity, though for years he had maintained that it was for reasons of brevity.
The handsome and dashing Shaw gained additional fame by marrying eight times, including actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes, novelist Kathleen Windsor, and Elizabeth Kern, the daughter of composer Jerome Kern.
Among his most famous renditions were “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, which public demand made his signature tune, and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”
Shaw was a compulsive reader and despite his fame, wealth and glamorous companions, went through frequent depressions. He also expressed disdain for the “jitterbugging morons” who danced to his music.
Shaw was among the first to break the color barrier of the band era by hiring singer Billie Holiday.