In an historic December 2, 1939 “rags to riches” piece in the Saturday Evening Post titled “Music is a Business,” Artie Shaw writes about his participation in what was billed as “New York’s…first Swing Concert” — presented at the Imperial Theater on May 24, 1936 — and how his formation of an unusual ensemble for the evening resulted in only short term opportunity, but ultimately led to wild success.
“I had always felt that a string background for a hot clarinet would wed the best of sweet and swing as it was being interpreted at the moment,” Shaw wrote of the ensemble idea he had for the “Swing Concert” performance. “At least, it would be novel and might attract some attention. I convinced a string quartet the idea had merit…and…we went to work.” Given that the evening’s performers prior to Shaw’s group were made up of “raucous and ear splitting” “brass…brass…and more brass,” he felt out of place — “a chamber-music group in a house packed with jitterbugs!”
The immediate reaction to their performance was, according to Shaw’s press agent at the time, “colossal,” resulting in “three major recording companies offered to put us on wax.” Shaw also signed with a booking office “to develop a larger band using the same basic idea — string interludes and backgrounds against a jazz combination.” However, when the band hit the road, it “chalked up new box-office lows wherever it appeared.”
“The dismal failure of the string band convinced me it was financial suicide to try to sell the public on anything novel without tremendous backing. My only chance was to get together the standard combination and beat the topnotchers at their own game.” Before finally doing so, Shaw would spend two years on the road, “playing every hamlet in New England and the Middle West, making 600-mile jumps overnight to earn a top fee of $250,” until he saw the band “shaping up,” getting “calls to return to towns we had already played. I felt safe in trying out innovations. They clicked. We dug up tunes like ‘Donkey Serenade’ and ‘Zigeuner’ — long relegated to dusty shelves — and audiences liked them.”
Shaw’s entertaining piece can be read in its entirety by clicking here.