The Troy Street Observer

Mar 16, 1984: The New Artie Shaw Orchestra at the Park Plaza

Photo of Dick Johnson and Artie Shaw
Dick Johnson and Artie Shaw, 1984. Photo Donna Paul.

Opening night of the 13th Boston Globe Jazz Festival featured the return of one of the most newsworthy figures in the music’s history. The new Artie Shaw Orchestra, under the direction of Dick Johnson, made its Boston debut at the Imperial Ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel. About 1,500 dancers, nostalgists, and the just plain curious turned out for it.

Shaw himself was on a Boston bandstand for the first time since 1953 to emcee and conduct while Johnson played his parts on “’S Wonderful,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Stardust,” and more. “We recorded “Stardust” in one take,” said Shaw. “I’d like to see Fleetwood Mac match that.” The crowd loved it.

Artie Shaw—articulate, opinionated, controversial—was back in the news.

It had been 30 years since Shaw quit the music business, but there was something in the air in 1983, and he decided the time was right to reorganize. To fill the crucial role of bandleader and clarinetist, Shaw chose Johnson, the Brockton, Mass.-based reedman, whom he had called “the best (clarinetist) I’ve ever heard. Bar nobody. And you can quote me on that. Anytime, anywhere.”

Johnson hired the musicians and brought them to Boston to rehearse in December. Shaw ran the sessions, and the musicians had never been through anything like it. After the first rehearsal, at the Satin Doll nightclub in the Back Bay Hilton, they gave Shaw a round of applause. Said trumpeter Lou Colombo, “Every minute was a college education.”

This was no oldies band. Shaw wanted something contemporary. Michael Ullman attended those rehearsals, and wrote: “Again and again he took a relatively pedestrian phrase or background figure, and by subtly changing the accenting, balance, or values of the notes, made it exciting. He heard everything and knew exactly what must be done… Shaw told me that what he is trying to do is to “play the musical notes of about a half a century ago with the musical sensibilities of today.”

The band officially debuted at the Glen Island Casino in January 1984, then went down south for a little more seasoning before arriving in Boston for the Globe Jazz Festival.

Shaw toured with the band in 1984, but, as he told the Phoenix’s Bob Blumenthal, “I won’t be with the band much next year at all. I’m doing what every parent should do: teach the kid to walk, wipe his ass, eat reasonably—then get out of his way. I’m nursemaiding the band until it’s old enough to take care of itself.”

And to the Globe’s Ernie Santosuosso, he said: “Our aim will be to establish an entertainment entity that will travel year-round. The band will play some 30 tunes associated with my name to help establish its identity and eventually incorporate material performed as if my old band had continued into the ‘80s.” Over time, Johnson did just that, incorporating new compositions as well as material by the likes of Bill Evans and Blue Mitchell. Johnson led the Shaw band until 2007, and it continues today under the direction of Matt Koza.

So how did it sound? Unfortunately, Shaw did not allow the band to release commercial recordings during his lifetime, with one exception: a version of “Grabtown Grapple” included on Johnson’s 2004 CD, Artie’s Choice. After Shaw’s death, his estate still held off. But there is on YouTube some video of that southern tour in early 1984.

“You don’t announce national anthems,” said Artie from the bandstand at Disney World, and without further ado the band kicked off “Stardust,” with Lou Colombo and Johnson featured.

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