The Arty Semite

The Joyous Music and Gloomy Life of Artie Shaw

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Nepotism is largely justified in Jewish families, when it is a matter of encouraging real talent. Such is the conclusion to be drawn from Tom Nolan’s “Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw,” a new biography of the clarinetist and bandleader.

Born in 1910 as Avraham Ben-Yitzhak Arshawsky on the Lower East Side of New York, Shaw started his musical career playing with Jewish bandleaders such as Jean Goldkette, Joe Cantor and Irving Aaronson. His big break came when he was hired at a hefty salary by Roger Wolfe Kahn, son of the noted financier Otto Kahn. Together with Kahn’s high level ensemble — which was as musically alert as the more famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra — Shaw even participated in a few light-hearted Vitaphone short films.

By the mid-1930s, Shaw was being encouraged by Willie “The Lion” Smith, the remarkable African American Jewish jazz pianist who served as cantor of the African American synagogue in Harlem. The Yiddish-speaking Smith was a friendly mentor, but Shaw soon ran up against a concrete wall of sibling rivalry in the form of his near-contemporary, the superstar Benny Goodman. Striving to outdo each other in Yiddishkeit, Goodman’s big band made a 1930’s hit of Sholom Secunda’s “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” Shaw’s contemporaneous response, “The Chant,” was inspired by “Khosn Kale mazeltov,” a klezmer tune described in Mark Slobin’s authoritative “American Klezmer: its roots and offshoots” as a “popular Jewish wedding recessional.”

Aptly enough, Shaw’s tormented personal life would include many unsatisfying marriages (see Shaw’s mournful performances of “Alone Together” by Arthur Schwartz). A bout of post-traumatic stress after service at Guadalcanal during World War II further shattered his equilibrium. Glints of happiness in Shaw’s long, troubled life (he died in 2004 at age 94) would occur during work with colleagues like the singer Mel Tormé, of Russian Jewish origin, whom Shaw discovered after the War. But had it not been for the early largess of Roger Wolfe Kahn, who knows if Shaw would have advanced so far in his landmark musical career?

Hear Shaw play “Gloomy Sunday,” a tune by Hungarian Jewish composer Rezső Seress so plaintive, it reportedly was banned by BBC Radio for convincing some listeners to end it all (!):


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Willie "The Lion" Smith, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.