While known later in his career as the “King of the Clarinet”, some are surprised to learn that Jewish jazz legend Artie Shaw actually got his start playing the saxophone. Today’s Jewish Treat presents the biography of Artie Shaw in honor of National Saxophone Day, which is observed this coming Saturday, November 6th.

The musical career of Artie Shaw (1910 – 2004), who was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, began with a saxophone that he bought for himself after his father left the family, when he was around 13. Shaw’s family had moved from the Lower East Side, New York to New Haven, Connecticut, and the overt anti-Semitism he encountered had a deep impact on the introverted youth.

A natural on several instruments, Shaw quit school at 15 to pursue a career in music. Success came quickly. In 1928 he won a trip to Hollywood, where he joined Irving Aaronson’s band. His career thereafter was always successful, but colored by his extremely fickle temperament and his distaste for the business of popular music. He quickly tired of playing the songs his audience most wanted to hear.

In 1935, Shaw started his first ensemble, “Interlude in B Flat.” Notably, in 1938, he hired Billie Holiday as his singer. He was one of the first big band leaders to try to integrate his ensemble. Unfortunately, many of the audiences were not ready for this form of entertainment, and Miss Holiday left the ensemble after a few years due to the racial tensions.

Shaw then worked in Hollywood for a few years. When World War II started, he joined the Navy. His military band played for troops throughout the Pacific, until he received a medical discharge for exhaustion in 1944.

After leaving the service, Shaw continued his frenetic career until he retired in 1954, and devoted himself to writing. In addition to an autobiography, he published two collections of short stories. He was also a sought-after lecturer. In 1983, Shaw came out of retirement and formed the Artie Shaw Band. He passed away in 2004.

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