Artie Shaw: Major Player

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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

Duke Ellington

  • 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

Artie Shaw: The Centennial Collection; Bluebird Jazz

Track 1 - Begin the Beguine [1938]

Track 2 - Any Old Time [1938]

Track 3 - Back Bay Shuffle [1938]

Track 4 - Nightmare [1938]

Track 5 - Say It with a Kiss [1938]

Track 7 - Frenesi [1940]

Track 9 - Summit Ridge Drive [1940]

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