Ever the iconoclast, Artie Shaw lent his name to a ghost band while he was still alive. That was in 1984, 30 years after he put away his clarinet for good. By the early '90s, along with "Begin the Beguine" and "Frenesi," the band's Berklee grads were pumping out medleys of Basie, Miller, and Goodman for senior citizens, sucked into a nostalgic dipsy-doodle that Shaw himself avoided by retiring from music to devote full time to his pretensions (who else would have prefaced a chapter in his autobiography about losing his virginity with a quote from Shakespeare?). Leaving the game early cost him in the end; following his death last month, the tabloid obits focused on his marriages to movie stars rather than his artistic legacy, and there was nothing like the fuss made over Benny Goodman's death in 1986. But mull this: In Scorsese's The Aviator, Goodman's "Down South Camp Meeting" is period detail, whereas Shaw's "Nightmare" is organic, signaling crossed wires in Howard Hughes's circuitry. Shaw's band merely coincided with the swing era; it was sui generis, to Goodman's as Ellington's was to Basie's. No clarinetist, including Goodman, ever equaled Shaw's combination of legitimate technique and improvisational acumen. For proof that Shaw walked away at the top of his game, try finding his small group sides of the early 1950s with Hank Jones, last available on Musicmasters. And though a box set of his complete RCA recordings of the '30s and '40s is long overdue, you can't go wrong with last year's The Centennial Collection (Bluebird), a splendid collection of masters and air checks that comes with a bonus DVD of his movie appearances.
photo: RCA Records
Ever the iconoclast, and more than the sum of his marriages