New York, NY —
This May will mark 100 years since the birth of Artie Shaw, the bandleader and clarinet player. As WNYC’s Sara Fishko tells us in this edition of the Fishko Files, Shaw is worth remembering for more than just his music.
Swing bands of the 1930s and 1940s often played one signature theme song before their radio broadcasts and dance performances. Theme songs became the bands’ trademarks, which made their selections important choices. With some bands, the themes matched their music. With other bands, though, the theme songs deviated from the band’s musical style. Artie Shaw’s band, for example, played some of the sweetest music of the Swing Era. The band’s most popular song was their arrangement of Cole Porter’s "Begin the Beguine," which sold millions of copies, making it the largest sale of an instrumental tune at that time, and an enduring anthem for the Swing Era. A ‘beguine,’ by the way, is a Caribbean rumba-like dance, which enjoyed a small bit of popularity in the 1930s.
Despite Shaw’s band’s sweet sensibility, their theme song was a particularly gloomy tune called "Nightmare."
Artie Shaw: "Nightmare"
Here’s Loren Schoenberg, jazz musician and historian, talking about "Nightmare" and other Swing Era theme songs.
“There is something almost foreboding and sinister about 'Nightmare.' I think 'Nightmare' is unique among Big Band theme songs of the era. Most were like Benny Goodman’s 'Let’s Dance,' or Count Basie’s 'One O’Clock Jump,' Duke Ellington -– well, this is interesting. Ellington’s theme song in the ‘30s was 'East St. Louis Toodle-Ooo,' and that was a pretty moody, minor piece. But compared to 'Nightmare' it sounds like a Mozart 'Prelude in C Major.'“
Listen to other Swing bands’ theme songs below.
Benny Goodman: Let’s Dance
Count Basie: One O’Clock Jump
- East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (to 1940)
- Sepia Panorama (1940-41)
- Take the ‘A’ Train (1941 on)
Glenn Miller: Moonlight Serenade
Loren Schoenberg is the Executive Director of The Jazz Museum in Harlem. There is more information on the museum here.
Will Friedwald is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Read Will’s article about Art Tatum, as well as his other WSJ work, here.
Playlist for Artie Shaw
The Artistry of Artie Shaw; HEP Records
Track 3 – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Track 12 - Prelude No.17.wav Prelude No. 17
Track 13 – Valse
Track 15 – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Track 1 - Begin the Beguine 
Track 2 - Any Old Time 
Track 3 - Back Bay Shuffle 
Track 4 - Nightmare 
Track 5 - Say It with a Kiss 
Track 7 - Frenesi 
Track 9 - Summit Ridge Drive 
Artie Shaw: The Complete Spotlight Band 1945 Broadcasts; HEP Records
Track 1 – Intro: Tabu
Track 2 - If I Loved You
Artie Shaw and His Orchestra: Begin the Beguine; RCA
Track 19 - Moon Ray