Widely regarded as "one of jazz's finest clarinetists," Shaw led one of the United States' most popular big bands in the late 1930s through the early 1940s. Though he had numerous hit records, he was perhaps best known for his 1938 recording of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Prior to the release of "Beguine," Shaw and his fledgling band had languished in relative obscurity for over two years and, after its release, he became a major pop artist within short order. The record eventually became one of the era's defining recordings. Musically restless, Shaw was also an early proponent of what became known much later as Third Stream music, which blended elements of classical and jazz forms and traditions. His music influenced other musicians, such as John Barry in England, with the vamp of the James Bond Theme, possibly influenced by "Nightmare," which also has a similar vamp to Kurt Weill's "Lonely House."
Shaw also recorded with small jazz groups drawn from within the ranks of the various big bands he led. He served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1944, (during which time he led a morale-building band that toured the South Pacific amidst the chaos of World War II) and, following his discharge in 1944, he returned to lead a band through 1945. Following the breakup of that band, he began to focus on other interests and gradually withdrew from the world of being a professional musician and major celebrity, although he remained a force in popular music and jazz before retiring from music completely in 1954.
Born in New York City, Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was the son of Sarah (ne;e Strauss) and Harry Arshawsky, a dressmaker and photographer. The family was Jewish; his father was from Russia, his mother from Austria. Shaw grew up in New Haven, Connecticut where  his natural introversion was deepened by local antisemitism. Shaw bought a saxophone by working in a grocery store, and began learning the saxophone at 13; by 16, he switched to the clarinet and left home to tour with a band. Returning to New York, he became a session musician through the early 1930s. From 1925 until 1936, Shaw performed with many bands and orchestras; from 1926 to 1929, he worked in Cleveland and established a lasting reputation as music director and arranger for an orchestra led by the violinist Austin Wylie. In 1929 and 1930, he played with Irving Aaronson's Commanders, where he was exposed to symphonic music, which he would later incorporate in his arrangements. In 1932, Shaw joined the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra and made several recordings with the outfit including "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Fit as a Fiddle". Shaw also appears in Kahn's Vitaphone movie The Yacht Party.
In 1935, Shaw first gained attention with his "Interlude in B-flat" at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York. During the swing era, his big bands were popular with hits like "Begin the Beguine" (1938), "Stardust" (with a trumpet solo by Billy Butterfield), "Back Bay Shuffle," "Moonglow," "Rosalie" and "Frenesi." The show was well received, but forced to dissolve in 1937 because his band's sound was not commercial. He was an innovator in the big band idiom, using unusual instrumentation; "Interlude in B-flat," where he was backed with only a rhythm section and a string quartet, was one of the earliest examples of what would be later dubbed Third Stream. His incorporation of stringed instruments could be attributed to the influence of classical composer Igor Stravinsky.
In addition to hiring Buddy Rich, he signed Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white band leader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated Southern U.S. However, after recording "Any Old Time," Holiday left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more "mainstream" singer. Shaw's band became enormously successful, and his playing was eventually recognized as equal to that of Benny Goodman. Longtime Duke Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard cited Shaw as his favorite clarinet player. In response to Goodman's nickname, the "King of Swing," Shaw's fans dubbed him the "King of the Clarinet." Shaw felt the titles should be reversed. "Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music," he said. In 1938, Down Beat magazine readers voted Artie Shaw's the best swing band.
Shaw was a serious artist. He valued experimental and innovative music rather than generic dance and love songs, despite an extremely successful career that sold more than 100 million records. He fused jazz with classical music by adding strings to his arrangements, experimented with bebop, and formed "chamber jazz" groups that used novel sounds, such as harpsichords or Afro-Cuban music.
Like his main rival, Benny Goodman, and other leaders of big bands, Shaw fashioned a smaller "band within the band" in 1940. He named it Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five, after his home telephone exchange. Band pianist Johnny Guarnieri played a harpsichord on the quintet recordings, and Al Hendrickson played an electric guitar, unusual in jazz recordings of the time. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge later became part of the group, succeeding Billy Butterfield. In 1940, the original Gramercy Five pressed eight records, then Shaw dissolved the band in early 1941. The Gramercy Five's biggest hit was "Summit Ridge Drive," one of Shaw's million-selling singles. In 1990, a compact disc collection of The Complete Gramercy Five sessions was released.
His last prewar band, organized in September 1941, included Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Max Kaminsky, Georgie Auld, and Guarnieri.
The long series of musical groups Shaw formed included such talents as vocalists Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Helen Forrest, and Mel Torme;, drummers Buddy Rich and Dave Tough, guitarists Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Tal Farlow, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and trombonist-arranger Ray Conniff, among countless others. He used the haunting, morose "Nightmare," with its Hasidic nuances, as his "theme" tune, rather than choosing a more "accessible" song. In a televised interview in the 1970s, Shaw derided the often "asinine" songs, created in the song mills of Tin Pan Alley, that were the lifeblood of popular music of the period, and which bands, especially the most popular (i.e., his own) were compelled to play night after night. In 1994, he told Frank Prial (The New York Times), "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was 'Begin the Beguine.' " 
During World War II, Shaw enlisted in the United States Navy and shortly after formed a band, which served in the Pacific theater (just as Glenn Miller's wartime band served in the UK and Europe). After 18 months playing for Navy personnel, (sometimes as many as four concerts a day in battle zones, including Guadalcanal), Shaw returned to the U.S. in a state of physical exhaustion and received a medical discharge. After the war, the popularity of big bands declined, as crooners and bebop began to dominate the charts. In the late 1940s, Shaw performed classical music at Carnegie Hall and with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
Throughout his career, Shaw had a habit of forming bands, developing them according to his immediate aspirations, making a quick series of records, and then disbanding. He generally did not stick around long enough to reap his bands' successes through live performances of their recorded hits. Following the breakup of what was already his second band in 1939, he rarely toured at all and, if he did, his personal appearances were usually limited to long-term engagements in a single venue or bookings that did not require much traveling, unlike many bands of the era that traveled great distances doing seemingly endless strings of one-night engagements. Apart from his interest in music, Shaw had a tremendous intellect and almost insatiable thirst for intellectual knowledge and literature. During his self-imposed "sabbaticals" from the music business, his interests included studying advanced mathematics, as cited in Karl Sabbagh's The Riemann Hypothesis. At the height of his success, Shaw's first interregnum, was met with disbelief by booking agents. They predicted Shaw would not only be abandoning a million-dollar enterprise, but that nightclub and theater owners would sue him for breach of contract. Shaw's offhand response was, "Tell 'em I'm insane. A nice, young American boy walking away from a million dollars, wouldn't you call that insane?"
In July 1954 Shaw undertook a brief but historic Australian tour for promoter Lee Gordon on which he shared the bill with drummer Buddy Rich and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. After completing that tour Shaw stopped playing the clarinet, citing his own perfectionism, which, he later said, would have killed him. He explained to a reporter, "In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last. You have to be Lawrence Welk or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I'm not able to do that, and I have taken the clarinet as far as anyone can possibly go. To continue playing would be a disservice." He spent the rest of the 1950s living in Europe.
In 1983, after years of prodding by veteran band-booker Williard Alexander, the 73-year-old Shaw organized a new band and selected clarinetist Dick Johnson as bandleader and soloist. The 58-year-old Johnson, an accomplished woodwind and saxophone player and native of Brockton, Massachusetts, was no stranger to jazz having recorded numerous albums of his own and had idolized Shaw's playing throughout his life. Shaw's music library, which was the product of his almost 20 years of activity in the music business, contained numerous arrangements of monumental status of popular music in addition to many original big band jazz compositions of the era. It was a collection of music arranged by some of the foremost composer/arrangers of the period, much of which was sketched out by Shaw himself and filled in and completed by his orchestrator/arranger collaborators, among them Jerry Gray, William Grant Still, Lennie Hayton, Ray Conniff, Eddie Sauter, and Jimmy Mundy, to name a few. Shaw rehearsed his new band, (based out of Boston, Massachusetts), and the band made its official debut on New Year's Eve 1984 at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, the same launching pad for many bands of the swing era decades earlier, when Shaw and his bands were in their prime. Shaw appeared with the band throughout its first few years, limiting his role to being its conductor and front man, while leaving the clarinet playing duties to Johnson. In 1985, another week-long series of strenuous rehearsals followed during which Shaw added more repertoire, including many arrangements and compositions that were from the later years of his career Shaw had never recorded. By 1987 though, Shaw was no longer touring with the band, quietly content that Johnson and the band kept true to Shaw's band spirit and vision. He would, however, show up on occasion "just to hear how things sounded."
Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman interviewed Hoagy Carmichael, Doc Cheatham, and others including Shaw for her documentary film, Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet (1981) about Bix Beiderbecke, and afterward she went on to create an Academy Award-winning documentary, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got (1985), featuring extensive interviews with Shaw, Buddy Rich, Mel Torme;, Helen Forrest, and other musicians, in addition to Shaw's eighth wife, actress Evelyn Keyes. The documentary ends with Shaw rehearsing his new band with co-leader Johnson present and rolls to credits perhaps quite fittingly with the band taking a final segue to Shaw's theme song Nightmare. In 2000, filmmaker Ken Burns interviewed Shaw at his home for his PBS documentary/miniseries Jazz where Shaw appears in multiple segments. Shaw's last major interview was in 2003, when he was interviewed by Russell Davies for the BBC Television documentary, Artie Shaw - Quest for Perfection. The documentary includes interviews with surviving members of his original bands, Johnson, and other music industry professionals.
In 1980, Shaw donated his papers, most of which amounted to his music library of over 700 scores and parts and approximately 1,000 pieces of sheet music, to Boston University. In 1991, the collection was transferred to the School of Music of the University of Arizona in Tucson. In 2004, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
A self-proclaimed "very difficult man," Shaw was married eight times. Two marriages were annulled; the others ended in divorce: Jane Cairns (1932-33 annulled); Margaret Allen (1934-37); actress Lana Turner (1939-1940); Betty Kern, the daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern, (1942-43); actress Ava Gardner (1945-46); Forever Amber author Kathleen Winsor (1946-48, annulled); actress Doris Dowling (1952-56), and actress Evelyn Keyes (1957-85). He had one son, Steven Kern, with Betty Kern, and another son, Jonathan Shaw, with Doris Dowling. Both Lana Turner and Ava Gardner later described Shaw as being extremely emotionally abusive. His controlling nature and incessant verbal abuse drove Turner to have a nervous breakdown, soon after which she divorced him. In 1940, Shaw briefly dated actress Judy Garland and, according to Tom Nolan's biography, had an affair with Lena Horne.
In 1946, Shaw was present at a meeting of the Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan, part of a core group of actors and artists who were trying to sway the organization away from Communism, presented an anti-Communist declaration which, if signed, was set to run in newspapers. There was bedlam as many rose to champion the communist cause, and Artie Shaw began praising the democratic standards of the Soviet constitution. In 1953, Shaw was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his leftist activities. The committee was investigating a peace activist organization, the World Peace Council, which it considered a Communist front.
He was a precision marksman, ranking fourth in the United States in 1962, and an expert fly fisherman. In his later years, Shaw lived and wrote in the Newbury Park section of Thousand Oaks, California. He died on December 30, 2004, at the age of 94. According to his publicist, he had been "in ill health for some time, but I don't know the specific cause of death." In fact, Shaw had long been suffering from diabetes. In 2005, Shaw's eighth wife, Evelyn Keyes, sued Shaw's estate, claiming she was entitled to one-half of Shaw's estate, pursuant to a contract to make a will between them. In July 2006, a Ventura, California jury unanimously held that Keyes was entitled to almost one-half of Shaw's estate or $1,420,000.
Shaw did many big band remote broadcasts and, throughout the autumn and winter of 1938, he was often heard from the Blue Room of New York's Hotel Lincoln (now the Milford Plaza). Following tours throughout the spring and summer of 1939, Shaw and his band were resident at the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. That same period of the fall of 1938, into much of 1939, was the period of his only regular radio series as headliner, with comedian/humorist Robert Benchley acting as emcee. Sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes, Shaw broadcast on CBS from November 20, 1938 until November 14, 1939. It was at the Cafe Rouge where Shaw literally "quit" his own band that very week in November and "escaped" to Mexico. The band carried on without Shaw into January but ultimately broke up without him. Following Shaw's return from Mexico in 1940, and still under contract to RCA Victor, he recorded Frenesi with a group of session musicians in Hollywood. Shaw's "experiment" recording six tunes on the Frenesi session - to try and incorporate a jazz band into a group of strings and woodwinds - ended up creating another monster-hit record for Shaw with Frenesi, and he was signed to be the house bandleader for the Burns and Allen Show for 26 weeks emanating from Hollywood, beginning in July 1940. Shaw reorganized again with a full-time band that was much along the lines of his previous swing band concept of 1937-39, but to its instrumentation he added six violins, two violas, and one 'cello, thereby adding a small string section. The addition of a string section to a "popular" big band was not novel, as it had been done by Paul Whiteman and others since the 1920s. What Shaw did was modernize the concept, however, and bring it in step with the popular music and jazz trends in 1940, at what was the height of swing as a purely musical progression in its development. The presence of strings gave Shaw a wider tonal palette to draw from in conceiving original compositions and arrangements of current pop tunes, which he then used to his advantage as an instrumentalist, allowing him to focus more on ballads and musical textures and subtleties as a consummate soloist, as opposed to just leading another frenetic swing band (a concept he had abandoned the previous year in 1939), at least to the degree he could get away with it and still be considered a "popular dance band." By now, Shaw was at or near the top of the short list of virtuoso jazz instrumentalists fronting any band, large or small. The band was showcased on the Burns and Allen program each week, and Shaw's contract was renewed for another 13 weeks when the program transferred to New York. Shaw broke up the Hollywood band keeping a nucleus of seven musicians, in addition to himself, and filled out the ensemble with New York musicians until it all came to an end in March 1941.
While taking a few months off in the spring of 1941 to reassess what to do next, Shaw furthered his musical development and, during the summer, he recorded in another small group format with three horns and a four-man rhythm section with the addition of a dozen strings and, by September, he was re-forming another big band to go out on tour, this one with seven brass, five saxes, four rhythm, and 15 strings. Remote broadcasts of this band coming from ballrooms where they appeared, noted the band performing in very good form and Shaw dazzling the crowd with his clarinet playing. Three months into the tour, the 31-piece band was in the midst of a matinee performance in Providence, Rhode Island, when Shaw was handed a note by the stage manager. The day was December 7, and notice had just come in that the Japanese air force had bombed Pearl Harbor, and the note handed to Shaw to read on stage aloud was an instruction for all military personnel in the audience to report at once to their bases. When a large portion of the audience in the theater left immediately, Shaw knew at once it was all over and, following the performance, the band was put on notice. One more recording session date was made in January 1942; this edition of Artie Shaw and his various bands and orchestras came to a rather abrupt end.
Shaw enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Following his discharge in 1944, he formed another band, this time what could be considered a "modern" big band in that it contained what is now considered the de facto "standard" of eight brass and five saxes. It did not include any strings and was based in Hollywood, California, where Shaw was living at the time. Shaw continued to record for RCA Victor records, as he had before the war, and limited the band's personal appearances to military bases in California; a number of remote broadcasts of this band performing live still exist. In August 1945, Shaw's long-standing recording contract with RCA ended, and he made his last records for them. He then signed with an independent label, Musicraft records, but broke up the band at the end of the year. He made a few records for Musicraft before the band broke up, and all of the subsequent recordings for Musicraft from 1946 were staffed by top-notch session musicians. The big band was back in the studio, this time including strings. It was on these Musicraft recordings in 1946 that Shaw featured the young singer, Mel Torme;. On some of the sides, Torme was also featured with his vocal group the Meltones.
In 1940, at the height of his popularity, the 30-year-old Shaw reportedly earned up to $60,000 per week. In contrast, George Burns and Gracie Allen were each making US $5,000 per week during the year that Shaw and his orchestra provided the music for their radio show. He also acted on the show as a love interest for Gracie Allen, although he disliked having to be a part of the celebrity pop-culture of the period.
Shaw made several musical shorts in 1939 for Vitaphone and Paramount Pictures. He portrayed himself in the Fred Astaire film, Second Chorus (1940), which featured Shaw and his orchestra playing Concerto for Clarinet, and his 1940-41 Hollywood period Star Dust band can be heard throughout the soundtrack. The film garnered him two Oscar nominations for Best Score and Best Song ("Love of My Life"). He collaborated on the love song "If It's You," sung by Tony Martin in the Marx Brothers' film, The Big Store (1941). In 1950, he was a mystery guest on What's My Line? and on August 31, 1952 was part of the panel. During the 1970s he made appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Many of his recordings have been used in motion pictures. His 1940 recording of "Stardust" was used in its entirety in the closing credits of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Martin Scorsese also used the Shaw theme song, "Nightmare," in his Academy Award-winning Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.
Shaw credited his time in the Navy from 1942 to 1944 as a period of renewed introspection. After his discharge, he entered psychoanalysis and began to gradually withdraw from music to pursue a writing career. His autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity, was published in 1952 (with later reprint editions in 1992 and 2001). Revealing downbeat elements of the music business, Shaw explained that "the trouble with Cinderella" is "nobody ever lives happily ever after." He turned to semi-autobiographical fiction with the three short novels in I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! (1965, reprinted in 1997), which prompted Terry Southern's comment: "Here is a deeply probing examination of the American marital scene. I flipped over it!" Shaw's short stories, including "Snow White in Harlem," were collected in The Best of Intentions and Other Stories (1989). He worked for years on his 1000-page autobiographical novel, The Education of Albie Snow, but the three-volume work remained unpublished. Currently, through Curtis International Associates, the Artie Shaw Orchestra is still active.