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?

Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 20

In Chapter 20 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée recalls his lonely youth when gals didn’t always appreciate what he had to offer them and explores the impact that fame can have in the arena of romance.

Chapter XX

“That’s My Weakness Now”

I WAS born with an extraordinary amount of feeling. By feeling I mean something that has many sides and may be expressed in many ways. A person who has this intensity of emotion within, may find an outlet for it through passion and anger, or through artistic work such as painting, sculpture and writing, whether literary or musical. Some of its greatest mediums of expression are instruments of a musical nature, including that most beautiful of all instruments, the human voice. The majority of human beings rarely experience great passion or feelings. If I explain what I mean by “great passion or feelings,” I think it will be seen that I am quite correct.
In speaking of that passion or feeling known as anger or temper, I have found that nearly everyone seems to take a certain foolish pride in saying that they have quite a temper when once aroused. And yet, I find these people unusually docile, easy to get along with, and very tractable. It is true that, sufficiently aroused, they are provoked to anger. But in my mind, the person who really has a temper is one who, on he slightest provocation, or on no provocation at all, flies into an ungovernable rage. In the same spontaneous way does this same feeling or passion manifest itself through music and the sex impulse.
I know so many musicians who play well, who play mechanically correctly, and with a certain amount of feeling withal. That is, the listener is aware of the fact that there is some emotion expressed in the person’s tone, whether through an instrument or the voice. But the degree of feeling in the majority of musicians is very small, simply due to the fact that the majority of persons are not tremendously emotional by nature. So it is obviously quite impossible for them to express something they do not feel through their voices or instruments. The actor or orator who can sway his audience is merely using his voice and mind as a medium for the expression of this elusive feeling. I do not claim to know from what part of the body this phenomenon comes; I do know that it manifests itself differently in different people. I experience it very often through music. Martial tones give me that very commonplace run of shivers up and down my spine. Sad music, or extremely beautiful music combined with beautiful poetry, brings tears very easily to my eyes, beautiful music with a love story or love picture brings an emptiness, a yearning, and an ache into my heart. All my life I have always felt these emotions when I have been confronted by these expressions of the emotions of others. Thus it is that certain people have within them a well of emotion and passion or a certain quality of personality. We call that personality “IT” or sex appeal. A person of this temperament reacts upon one whose system is likewise constructed, in such a way that each is tremendously aware of the other’s feelings. Ever since I was a child I have been aware of the tremendous attraction that certain types of people who are generally alike in type have for me.
Clearly everyone has a weakness for something. By that I do not mean a weakness that becomes an obsession that ends with the person going to an asylum, or, in the case of a drunkard or a gambler, “to the dogs.” Rather is this weakness a sort of a cross between a hobby and a complex. For some men the week is not complete and they have not had their greatest happiness unless they have attended some kind of a sport event; for another man it is a business convention; for another in the nature of a gathering of old cronies either at cards, pool, or a fishing trip; and for still others it is a drinking bout, or a gambling fest, or a smoker. While I enjoy some of these things, I find none of them absolutely essential to my happiness. We have among our great paintings a simple that is called “End of Day” which depicts a farmer going home with the setting sun. I remember the painting only vaguely but I do know that the idea it conveyed to me was that the reward which awaited the farmer was his cottage, which all its homely comforts, his children, and lastly that complement that must have been created as a necessary half of the total, his wife.
Likewise to me, the reward for all my strivings, schemings, labors and hopes, is the comfort that I will receive from the company of the girl who brings happiness to me. Perhaps it will be just her company, just her presence by my side; maybe it will be the pressure of her hand, or the feel of her in my arms as we dance, or if alone, in embrace; and then that acme of all happiness and delight, the touch of her lips, that gives me this joy. I know that the majority of men are not so dependent on the companionship of women as I am and are perhaps happier for their independence, as I have often been very lonely.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 13

In Chapter 13 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée addresses a question that he claimed occasionally came up: Was his experience in college responsible for his success? As a Yale man, Rudy had strongly felt opinions on the topic, and he’s not shy about sharing them.

Chapter XIII

Did College Help Me?

I HAVE occasionally been asked whether or not I thought that my college training was responsible for my success.
Like most questions I believe that is a difficult one to answer with a single negative or affirmative since it requires much discussion and explanation.
There has always been animosity on the part of many people who have attended a university toward those who have. This is probably subconsciously prompted by envy and regret as there are very few who will not admit that if they had the opportunity they would go to college.
It is true that in the past the requirements for entering college, for remaining within its walls, and for securing a degree were not as exacting as they are today. There were not so many applications for admission as the average college receives today, and there was a looseness about the times that was felt n the classrooms and on the campus.
But today the average college can accommodate only one third of the men who apply for admission each fall. Therefore the board of admission and the faculty feel that in justice to the thousands who are turned down, those admitted should give the best in them in an effort to utilize all of the wonderful advantages that the college affords them. In other words, among those refused admission are many who perhaps would give anything to have been admitted and who would work very hard, and for the more fortunate ones who are safely in to rest on their oars and become, as it were, slackers, is an injustice to these others.
I do not know a great deal about the requirements of other colleges but I do know that to enter, stay within and graduate from Yale requires work, hard work and plenty of it. Neither money, family prestige nor athletic ability will keep a man in Yale University; and I have seen some of the biggest athletes severely penalized for misdemeanors that seemed comparatively slight. In fact, the faculty at New Haven has just as high a regard for the fifty percent of the men who are working their way through as they have for the remainder.
It is an absolute impossibility for a young man to remain for the four years of a college course within this university (and I firmly believe such is the case in nearly all of our other American universities) without being tremendously affected by his classroom and social contacts. It is unreasonable to suppose that one could associate with the eager, fresh and talented minds of students and the cultured, highly specialized minds of the faculty without receiving some sort of impression. It is impossible to cheat in the classroom and it is impossible to pass most of the courses without reading and study.
Therefore it is an unavoidable fact that those who march in cap and gown at Commencement have, perhaps in spite of themselves, received a great deal from their college life.

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