84 years ago famed songwriter Cole Porter took a south Pacific cruise to Fiji to do a little work. If you’re under the age of 50, you might not know who Cole Porter is. But if you’ve ever heard Frank Sinatra, you’ve definitely heard Cole Porter; half of Sinatra’s repertoire was probably written by the man. Porter wrote so many now-famous songs from the Jazz Era that it’s impossible to not have heard him even six decades after his death. His effect on pop culture is still felt today.
Kicked back in a lounge chair on the deck of an ocean liner way back in 1935, basking in the southern sun and warm tropical breezes, Porter wrote a song called Begin the Beguine (that’s pronounced buh-GEEN; it’s a Caribbean dance). Later that year it was performed in the musical Jubilee. The song was good, but it might have just died right there had it not been for a 20-something clarinet player named Arthur Arshawsky, better known as Artie Shaw. Artie Shaw recorded Begin the Beguine in 1938, and it was an instant success. Fans of swing and Big Band will know it right off, if not by name then definitely by sound.
Artie Shaw is considered one of the best jazz clarinetists who ever lived. He achieved the rare honor of being thought that while he was still alive, with his only real competition for the top spot being another familiar name: Benny Goodman. At the height of his musical career Artie Shaw was bringing in nearly $100,000 a month–a prodigious sum for the 1930s and 40s. A definite musical genius though, he was also a bit of a spaz.
And, Artie Shaw was also a bit of an asshole.
Shaw had what laymen might today describe as OCD. He would form bands, record albums, play the albums on tour a few times, then disband the band before starting the cycle over again. Artie was always on to the next thing, always with a foot out the door no matter what he was doing. Thus impatience was one of the traits that contributed to Shaw’s reputation as being a dickhead. Once he’d done something, Artie Shaw didn’t want to do it anymore–and he acted like it.
So it was with Begin the Beguine. After only a year or two following its release, Shaw became disgusted with the song and didn’t want to play it any longer. But more damning for a public performer, he became disgusted with the audience who constantly requested it everywhere he went. You can imagine the level of his disgust then when, four years later in 1942 after he himself had joined the Navy, a bunch of U.S. Marines crowded around him as he stood atop a shitty little plywood stage on a shitty little malarial island named Guadalcanal, and they shouted “play Begin the Beguine, Artie!“
Artie was a prick, and it definitely pissed him off, but he was a dutiful prick. And Begin the Beguine he played.
In playing a song he loathed though, something transformative happened on that sweltering heap of sand in the middle of nowhere, with all the creepy crawlies biting them in unmentionable places, there where so many American boys were killed. After a few performances, Artie Shaw began to notice the apparently universal affect the song had on those Marines. The bum-bum, bum-bum Foxtrot with the soft horns and saxes, and his perky, carefree clarinet floating above, took the boys back to that last night with their girlfriends, cook-outs in the backyard with family, and baseball games in the summer.
For the three minutes Artie blew Begin the Beguine, those Marines were transported out of the war, up and away from all the death and all the killing and all the depravity, and sent away home back to Brooklyn or Topeka or Cedar Rapids. It was three minutes of peace, and Artie was their pilot. Shaw discovered that he didn’t just play music for them, he actually made them human again. He restored them, bright and shiny new for just a few moments, and in restoring them they restored him.
Shaw never stopped being an asshole of course, but in this one respect, he learned to be just a little less of one.
Artie Shaw toured the world during the war, playing his heart out for all the servicemen and women who took a break from saving the world to hear him tickle his golden clarinet. In 1944 he returned to the United States and received a medical discharge for exhaustion; Shaw had literally played himself half to death. After the war, he did a few gigs here and there for a couple years, but it wasn’t long before Artie Shaw quit playing music darn near completely. He only picked up the clarinet again in public a handful of times before his death at age 94. In the end, Shaw considered his experiences during the war, relatively brief as they were, as perhaps the most important thing he had ever done in almost ten centuries of living.
Artie Shaw never found peace in life. He married just about half the famous women in Hollywood at the time, and was known to be at least emotionally abusive. He took up flyfishing, gunsmithing, and shooting, no doubt to soothe his restless soul. Fishing and working with guns suited Shaw tremendously, given their private, precise, and meticulous nature. By the 1960s Shaw was unsurprisingly ranked among the best shooters in the nation. Diabetes took him at last in 2004, and finally gave him the rest he never could manage to get.
Give Begine the Beguine a listen, and while you do, picture in your mind all those filthy Marines in their dirty, tattered uniforms, oil and dried blood on their skin, sitting bunched together a couple miles away from the lines, listening to that clarinet lift them up and carry them home. Once you have them in mind, give thanks to them, wherever they are.
And maybe give ol’ Artie a shout-out too.