The New Deal Swing Band celebrates the centennial of Big Band superstar Artie Shaw's birth with a night of dancing and reminiscing to music that made Shaw famous, including "Stardust," "Begin the Beguine" and "S'Wonderful."
Shaw, who died in 2004, might not have approved.
A brilliant clarinetist and bandleader, Shaw was a complicated man with an intellect that didn't adapt well to the bandleader's need to please audiences by playing the same pieces over and over. In 1994, he told 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.' "
The multitalented jazz artist also was esteemed as a classical clarinetist and the author of well-received autobiographies and short stories.
He enlisted for service in World War II, helped break the color barrier in the music business, got himself investigated for "un-American activities" during the McCarthy era, abandoned and restarted his career several times and married eight times, including unions with film stars Lana Turner and Ava Gardner.
Unlike his cuddlier rival Benny Goodman, Shaw isn't remembered for his personal warmth. Some say his introverted and cantankerous nature resulted from a difficult childhood. Shaw, born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky to impoverished Jewish parents, endured the pains of growing up in an anti-Semitic neighborhood in West Haven, Conn. He became obsessed in his adulthood with self-examination and the search for new frontiers.
"He was always questioning the status quo and looking for new ways of doing things," said clarinetist Tad Calcara, bandleader and featured artist of New Deal Swing. (Calcara's other gig is as principal clarinetist of the Utah Symphony.) "That was a positive outcome of his prickly personality, but it caused problems in his personal relationships. I've found that musically, though, this constant question for truth made for a very interesting and innovative artist and musician."
Calcara was only 4 or 5 when he became aware of Shaw's music. His father listened to a weekly radio show about vintage cars. Calcara loved the show's theme music, "Summit Ridge Drive" -- the title comes from the Beverly Hills street where Shaw lived in the 1940s -- a quirky piece for clarinet, harpsichord and jazz rhythm section.
Calcara had no idea he would follow Shaw's footsteps to become a classical and jazz clarinetist. But the piece, as performed by Shaw's Gramercy Five Quintet, stayed with him. It will be on this evening's playlist.
And, yes, "Begin the Beguine" is on the program, too. So is one of Calcara's favorites -- "Stardust," which includes a soaring solo that spans the clarinet's range while delving into numerous rhythmic complexities. Calcara will reproduce Shaw's improvised studio version.
Salt Lake City jazz vocalist Melissa Pace Tanner will be the band's "canary," 1940s parlance for a featured female singer. Some of the original song versions were sung by Billie Holliday, others by Helen Forrest.
"With [Forrest's] singing, she always sounds kind of flirty and coy and sweet," Tanner said. "Billie Holliday's heart is breaking every time she sings. I try to listen to the original recording, then put myself in that mood and frame of mind."
The chance to front a group of professional musicians like those in New Deal Swing is a rare and enviable one, said Tanner, who describes her voice as more in the Helen Forrest style than that of Holliday.
"To have that many of them onstage and feel the joy of that music, and how much Tad loves it and knows about it -- there's a great sense of tradition and joy and happiness," the singer said.
New Deal Swing celebrated Goodman's centennial last year, and the Shaw centennial celebration will follow a similar format. The first half of the show will include video clips of Shaw's band, with New Deal Swing playing tunes concert-style. After a floor show by Salt Lake Jitterbug, the band will play for dancing during the show's second half.
The players in the band will use facsimiles of Shaw's actual charts throughout the evening, and Calcara will perform while wearing one of Shaw's own jackets, now part of his collection of Big Band memorabilia.
Personality-wise, nice-guy Calcara is no Artie Shaw. But when he lifts that clarinet to his lips, it's easy to believe that Shaw is back in all his difficult brilliance, and ready for another of his musical comebacks. The jacket fits perfectly.
Utah Symphony clarinetist Tad Calcara and his New Deal Swing Band will perform the music of clarinetist/bandleader Artie Shaw. The concert, set to honor the centennial of Shaw's birth, will feature vocalist Melissa Pace Tanner. The Salt Lake Jitterbugs dance group will present a floor show and free dance lessons. The event also will include video clips of Shaw's career, a display of memorabilia and refreshments.
When » Tonight at 7
Where » Congregation Kol Ami, 2425 Heritage Way, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $25 in advance; $36 at the door; 801-484-1501, ext. 22, or http://www.conkolami.org