Artie Shaw, RIP


Bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw–one of the giants of the pre-rock pop music era–is dead at age 94. The oft-married (eight times, including tours of duty with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner) Shaw was, as the SF Chronicle puts it, "the last of the Swing era giants."

Though his type of music–types, actually, as he consistently changed his sound, often to the consternation of his audience–eventually lost mass popularity to rock, r&b, and other forms, Shaw was also one of the first great celebrity refuseniks, packing in a still-vital career in the mid-'50s partly out of contempt for the very process and people that had made him a star. (Shaw attributed his retirement from recording to a perfectionism he could no longer maintain. That's surely part of it, as was the threat of new youth music that would quickly render Shaw a relic from a distant past. And it's also the case the guy had had an incredible run of 20 years or so.)

As a proto-celeb refusenik, he's an interesting character in a market-driven cultural economy, one which prizes the new and improved while also demanding a certain amount of continuity (play the hits, goddamnit!). It's a difficult tension that few acts successfully negotiate. Out of limited ability or limited vision (not Shaw's problems), they tend to become either nostalgia acts or to alienate themselves from their audiences with newer offerings.

After one of his first great stage walk-offs, from New York's Hotel Penn in 1939, he said, "I hate selling myself. I hate the fans. They won't even let me play without interrupting me. They scream when I play. They don't listen. They don't care about the music."

And somewhere in heaven, the angels are playing a swing version of what the old Spy magazine dubbed the celebrity refusenik anthem, Ricky Nelson's "Garden Party"–a late-career hit about not playing old songs anymore that eventually grew so popular that the former teen idol Nelson reputedly hating playing it anymore.

Whole Chron obit here.

Reason's Charles Paul Freund pondered the meaning of a different jazz refusenik, Miles Davis, here.