Artie Shaw–born Arthur Arshawsky–was a virtuoso clarinet player, one of the greats of the jazz era. He was one of the first to break down the unspoken wall between black and white musicians in New York. He studied and performed with Harlem orchestras, and he became the first white bandleader to hire a black woman as a singer, a young lady named Billie Holiday.
Shaw was born to Jewish immigrants in Alphabet City, New York. His father, a dressmaker, had trouble keeping a job and eventually left his wife and son. While still a teenager, Artie started playing jazz–first on the saxophone, then on alto sax and clarinet.
Initially, Shaw’s interest was purely financial–he needed gigs to support himself and his mother. Soon, he grew fascinated with composing music. He knew how to write a hit (his singles sold over 100 million records) but he prized innovation more, writing his own mash-ups and variations on jazz standards. At the age of 44, Shaw stopped playing entirely, sick of the music business, and lived another half century in comfortable retirement. A new book, King of the Clarinet, chronicles his remarkable ascent to the top of the jazz world.