Under the Black Flag

Before the Cacophony

Can anyone today imagine a clarinettist as a superstar the size of, say, Mick Jagger?  Or God forbid, the ghastly Madonna?  Well, 60 years or so ago, the biggest star in Hollywood, as well as the biggest stud, was Artie Shaw, whose combination of good looks, extraordinary musical talent, and great intelligence made him the brightest star among the dumb (not all) celluloid ones under the California sky.

Why have very few of you ever heard of him?  That’s an easy one to answer.  Most of you are young and think that the Rolling Stones and the Beatles are as old as Beethoven, if not quite as deaf.  No, the reason Artie is unknown is because he quit the music business in the mid-50’s, during his prime, retired, and stayed retired until his death at 94 four years ago.  He gave up the clarinet in order to write books—a book, rather—and he wrote that book until the end, 10,000 chapters or so.  It was, unsurprisingly, never published.  Many of his articles about jazz, or the state of jazz, were, as were his articles about the state of the human condition.  (Curmudgeonly, to say the least.)

He was born Arthur Jacob Arshaw­sky, the son of Jewish immigrants, and married eight times.  Among his wives—and check this—were Ava Gardner, the smoldering beauty from the deep South that drove men mad, certainly yours truly; Lana Turner, the blonde that...

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