Happy Birthday, Artie Shaw!

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of one of the giants of big band swing, Artie Shaw.

Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City, Shaw, who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, was said to be a cantankerous, difficult sort of fellow who never really was satisfied with the music he was expected to play. The demands of stardom reined him in. As he put it in a 1994 profile in The New York Times, “I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was ‘Begin the Beguine.'”

Well, heck, yes, we want Begin the Beguine! It’s one of the greatest recordings of the big band era. But we can see how a musician—any artist, really—can begin to feel creatively stifled by the expectations of fans and the press. But it’s sad that Shaw appears to have found little joy in the music he created, the music that has brought so much pleasure to the rest of us.

Heck, even Shaw’s theme song, which he composed, went against the joyful grain that characterized most swing music. It’s called Nightmare, and it is aptly named. Imagine being a swing fan in the late 1930s and getting the chance to take in a show by one of your favorite orchestras and having them open the show with that unsettling number!

Shaw retired repeatedly throughout his career, finally giving up the clarinet for good in 1954 (I wonder if he ever dreamed at the time he would live another half-century), and the reason he offered was his own perfectionism. “In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last,” Shaw told Michael Freedland in 2001. “You have to be Lawrence Welk, or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I’m not able to do that.”

Here’s hoping Shaw found some peace in the fifty years he lived mostly apart from music. For the rest of us, we have the many records he left us, which amount to as a great a legacy as virtually any other musician from that era.

We’re featuring Shaw’s music all day today, so why not tune in right now?

Happy birthday, Kitty Kallen!

Kitty Kallen quoteSadly, there aren’t terribly many performers still with us who enjoyed success during the Cladrite Era—all the more reason, then, to celebrate songbird Kitty Kallen‘s 93rd birthday.

Kallen, born Katherine Kalinsky in 1922 in Philadelphia, sang on the radio as a child on a program called The Children’s Hour, which was sponsored by Horn and Hardart, the Automat people, and as a teenager, she had occasions to sing with the big bands of Jan Savitt (in 1936), Artie Shaw (in 1938), and Jack Teagarden (in 1940).

At 21, she replaced Helen O’Connell as the singer for the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, primarily performing duets with Bob Eberly. After Eberly entered military service in 1943, Kallen joined the Harry James Orchestra, with whom she sang on several hit songs, including two—“I’m Beginning To See the Light” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”—that reached #1 on the charts.

But Kallen’s career didn’t end when the big band era did. Her 1954 hit, “Little Things Mean a Lot,” was number one in the U.S. for nine weeks and remained on chart for nearly seven months, selling more than two million copies in the process. She had many more hits throughout the 1950s and early ’60s

She also appeared frequently on television, on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow, in many of the world’s top nightclubs and in at least one motion picture. On her final album, Quiet Nights, she sang in the bossa nova style. A lung ailment would eventually force her retirement, but Ms. Kallen is still with us and we sincerely hope she enjoys a wonderful birthday today.

Snapshot in Prose: Jan Garber

Though his prognostications about the future of dance music (see below) left something to be desired, violinist and orchestra leader Jan Garber was very popular indeed in 1935, when this profile was first published in Popular Songs magazine.

Though Garber and his orchestra are not nearly as well remembered today as other band leaders and their outfits, it’s interesting and not a little surprising to note that there’s still a Jan Garber orchestra operating today. One isn’t, perhaps, surprised to learn that there are officially sanctioned, latter-day Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey orchestras still out there touring the country, causing toes to tap from coast to coast, but the Jan Garber Orchestra?

That comes as something of a surprise, if a pleasant one. Speaking of surprises, read to the end of this profile, and you’ll find some choice Jan Garber cuts awaiting you.

SHORT, stocky Jan Garber, director of one of the country’s most popular dance organizations, is not a chap afraid to be accused of going around circles, because he has his own career mapped out and is deliberately heading back to the type of music he played for 15 years as violin soloist with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.
“A dance band cannot hold its popularity forever,” says Jan, “and I want to be prepared to do something worth while when my dance band days are over.”
This explains why Jan has been taking violin lessons from Czerwonky of the Chicago Conservatory of Music for the last two years. He plans to be ready for the concert stage in 5 or 10 years, even though his experience with popular music has occupied much of his time during the last 12 years.
Let it not be supposed that Jan Garber looks down upon popular music. Not at all. He takes keen interest in keeping his orchestra on its toes and has all the members of the band gather at his home each week to listen to a recording of his previous broadcast. “Hearing ourselves as others hear us helps us get together on ideas for new band arrangements and lets us keep a constant check on ourselves,” is the way Garber explains it.

For the same reason Jan Garber likes to play up to his audience in Chicago’s Trianon ballroom, where his contract will keep him for the next three years with the exception of summer engagements. On the dance floor, he jokes and laughs with everyone, not only because it’s good business but because he gets a kick out of it.
Asked to explain what he thinks of the future of popular songs, Jan said, “The day of the primitive, the appeal to the muscles alone, is gone. Today I try to emphasize precision rhythm and simplicity in arrangement. I judge what the public wants by college boys and girls on dance floors where I play. They convince me that sentimental tunes will always have a place in music, and that the mad, hectic type of music which followed the World War will not come again.”
“Precision in rhythm and simplcity in arrangement” is indeed the key to Garber’s popularity. Three years ago his orchestra, then playing at Cleveland, was slipping in spite of all Jan could do.
A friend tipped Jan off that a bunch of Canadian youngsters were playing at a small roadhouse near Cleveland and were making quite with a hit with a special kind of rhythm. He went to hear them, was delighted and offered to take over the whole band. Freddie Large, the director, accepted eagerly and Jan got them an engagement at the Hotel Netherlands Plaza in Cincinnati.
That engagement was the beginning of a new kind of fame during which Jan changed his style of music from red hot jazz to the dreamy and melodious brand of music which his followers demand today.
The composition of Garber’s present band is interesting in that it includes only one of his old players, Rudy Rudisill, bald-headed pianist, who has been associated with Jan for 15 years dating back to the time in Washington when Jan got fired for staying on his honeymoon one day too long and organized a band of his own.
All of Garber’s boys admit that the director pays them well, but they all will tell you that nothing less than perfection pleases the energetic little maestro. Yet he allows Janice, his six-year-old daughter, to run around backstage during his programs. He spends a great deal of his time at home practicing on the violin, accompanied by his wife.

Jan Garber and His Orchestra — Ain’t No Maybe in My Baby’s Eyes

Jan Garber and His Orchestra — Puttin’ on the Ritz

Jan Garber and His Orchestra — You Don’t Like It—Not Much

The Karen Files, pt. 7

Another in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the life of our mother:

It’s easy, sometimes, to think of our parents as somehow older than they are. We too often were guilty of thinking of Karen as being of the Greatest Generation, of imagining her listening and dancing to the big bands during the height of the Swing Era.

But she was born in 1933. She was just a child when Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and the rest were flying high. Heck, she was just 11 when Glenn Miller died.

She remembered and enjoyed that music, sure, much as we remember and enjoy the pop music of the 1960s, when we were kids. But it wasn’t the music of her adolescence and young adulthood. She grew into young womanhood during the post-big band era, when the focus moved to vocalists. Big bands were still around, sure, but they weren’t the dominant force they had been.

Hers was the era of pre-rock ‘n’ roll vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Nat “King” Cole, Patti Page, and Margaret Whiting.

For that matter, Karen wasn’t so old when rock ‘n’ roll began to capture the nation’s attention. She was 21 when Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock” in 1954 and 23 when Elvis Presley‘s recording of “Heartbreak Hotel” became a No. 1 hit in 1956. She wasn’t likely to be found among the squealing teens at a Presley performance, but she wasn’t necessarily old enough to view the young rock-n-roller with the alarmed disapproval so many of her elders did. Presley was, after all, less than two years younger than Karen.

Similarly, we’re often a bit surprised to be reminded that Karen was just a kid during World War II and the events that preceded the United States’ involvement in it. This was brought home to me by the documents that make up this week’s installment of The Karen Files, which we found while sorting through the thousands of snapshots and documents Karen left behind.

The documents accompanying this text are pages from ration books. Until coming across these, we had no idea that children received ration booklets, too. It makes sense, though; obviously, a family of ten would have greater needs than a family of three, so assigning each child their own ration books (to be used, no doubt, by their parents) seems the ideal way to assure that each family gets what’s coming to it.

We’ve scanned and posted all the pages of the ration books for your consideration here. Perhaps many of you have seen ration books before—after all, every American had one, and of those millions of books, surely not a few got stashed when they were no longer needed, for later generations to come across, as we did, in dusty cartons long stowed away in attics or basements.

We learned a few not terribly weighty details about Karen’s life in May, 1942, from these documents. She lived at 509 South 4th Street in Okemah, Oklahoma (we knew she had grown up in a different house than the one where we visited our grandparents, but we didn’t know where it was). She was nine years old, stood four feet and one-half inches tall, and weighed 68 pounds. Her eyes were blue then, as always, and her hair was listed as blonde (light brown, we’d have to call it). Again, these details have no real import, but small things can have an impact when you’re trying to imagine loved ones at particular points in their lives.

We wish we’d thought to ask Karen what the heck she thought of Elvis Presley when he hit the national stage or how it felt to be a child during World War II. There are so many questions that we don’t think to ask our folks, even when we spend a lot of time thinking about the old days. Then a loved one’s mind grows feeble, due to illness or advanced age, or a life comes unexpectedly to an end, and it’s too late to ask.

View all this week’s Karen Files images.