I didn’t find out about Artie Shaw’s death until four days after it happened. Artie died on Dec. 31, and I learned the news when last week’s issue of Newsweek arrived at my house.
Given all that is happening in the world, the death of a long ago band leader may seem insignificant and somewhat irrelevant, especially for those of us who were born long after Mr. Shaw put his clarinet up on a shelf and walked away from the fame and fortune that society heaped upon him during the 1930s and ‘40s.
But since this is my column and because I shared a special connection with Mr. Shaw, I decided this week to use his life story as a metaphor for the debates that are shaping our public policy today.
Like me, Artie played the clarinet. Unlike me, he was damn good at it. But he was also a prolific writer and became – despite his best efforts to be a recluse — a champion of America’s civil rights movement.
Born in 1910, Arthur Arshawsky eventually changed his last name in order to evade the anti-Semitism that hid just beneath the surface of his Connecticut hometown. He was born to working-class parents, but his musical talents made him bigger than life. Despite all his successes, however, he flatly refused to become part of the glamour-set that was emerging in Hollywood.
In his auto-biography, The Trouble with Cinderella, Shaw recalls a party he attended in which J. Paul Getty was also a guest. Getty, I suppose, could be compared to today’s Donald Trump because of his penchant for media attention and massive wealth.
During the party, Shaw approached Getty and asked the celebrity multi-millionaire a simple question. Have you ever wanted anything that you couldn’t get? Getty thought about it for a moment, and then smugly replied, “No, I suppose there hasn’t been anything I couldn’t get.”
Shaw shook his head and said, “I find that very sad.”
Perplexed, Getty asked the famous bandleader why the idea of untold wealth made him sad. “Because you have never experienced what everyone else has,” Shaw replied before turning and walking away.
It’s just one of many examples of how Artie Shaw bucked society’s trends. But perhaps his biggest accomplishment came when he courageously defied the accepted racial practices of the entertainment industry by refusing to sequester his African-American band members during performances in the south.
He was also the first white musician of any significance to allow an unknown jazz singer to accompany him on stage. Billie Holiday was at that time an unknown, but Artie allowed her to sing with his band in New York City.
Eventually, Shaw — who was married to such celebrities as Ava Gardner and Lana Turner — found himself before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee that was intended to root out Communists and other so-called “Un-Americans”
Disgusted with his homeland, Shaw ditched the United States and moved to Spain, where he spent several years studying fishing. He eventually returned to America but avoided the public limelight for the remainder of his life.
So what does all this have to do with today? Well, coincidentally, I am now reading What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America by Thomas Frank. It is a fascinating book that details how Republicans won over the so-called red states that until very recently favored Democrats.
In a nutshell, Frank theorizes that many Midwestern voters switched their political affiliations primarily because of their religious beliefs, despite the conservatives’ consistent push for deregulation and privatization, which have hurt the red states more so than other parts of the country.
I say all this because otherwise sensible and decent people get all bent out of shape when discussing homosexuality and the concept of same-sex marriages. Pundits tell us it was one of the driving forces behind Bush’s most recent success.
As a happily married heterosexual, I cannot — for the life of me — figure out how the concept of two people loving one another in any way threatens the sanctity of my marriage. Why does it matter? Doesn’t the institution of marriage face bigger threats from Brad Pitt, Britney Spears and the plethora of reality TV shows that dominate our landscape?
Despite all his shortcomings, including repeated bouts of major depression, Artie Shaw had the guts and wisdom to speak out against what he saw as fundamentally wrong with society long before it was politically correct to do so.
God knows I hate the politically correct mantra, but I have a much deeper disdain for any form of discrimination that threatens the God-given dignity bestowed upon all human beings. Period.