January 9, 2010

AND HE WAS A HECK OF A PASSWORD PLAYER:

Hip to the Harpsichord: Artie Shaw's 1940 'Summit Ridge Drive' is seductive swing (TOM NOLAN, 1/08/10, WSJ)

There's a funny moment in "Second Chorus," the 1940 college-oriented Fred Astaire movie in which clarinetist Artie Shaw and his orchestra appear: An academic type jokes about a dissertation being done on "the future of the harpsichord in swing music."

Artie Shaw, in the autumn of 1940, would make that odd-sounding concept a reality—and produce one of his most enduring hits, a masterpiece of small-combo jazz, "Summit Ridge Drive."

In 1940, Shaw's swing-kingdom archrival, clarinetist-bandleader Benny Goodman, was fronting a sizzling sextet: a band within his big band that included the phenomenal electric-guitarist Charlie Christian. When Shaw formed a new orchestra that year, he too carved a separate combo from the ranks of his larger band. How might he make Artie Shaw and his Gramercy 5 as fresh and distinctive as Goodman's small group?

As Johnny Guarnieri told "Piano Jazz" radio host Marian McPartland in 1981, he was already in Shaw's big band when Shaw called him one day in the fall of 1940: "Shaw asked me if I'd ever played the harpsichord, and I said: 'Certainly.' And he said, 'Well that's great; we're gonna make some records tomorrow.' . . . I was lying! So I said, 'Artie—I don't know what a harpsichord is.' . . . He says, 'I have one up the house; let's go up there tonight—and we'll rehearse, and we'll make some records tomorrow.'"



Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2010 9:04 AM
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