By Seth Kibel, with an introduction by Bob Jacobson
Seth Kibel is one of the mid-Atlantic’s best-known woodwind players — a triple threat on clarinet, saxes and flute — and master of genres including jazz, klezmer and R&B. He has won numerous awards from the Washington Area Music Association. Seth has been a member of BJA since its founding in 2003. Furthermore, Seth has an irrepressible sense of humor, as this story about his attempts to meet Artie Shaw will attest.
Clarinetist Artie Shaw’s big band was one of the most popular of the Swing Era, with literally dozens of hit records in the 1930s and ’40s. After the Swing Era, he led innovative combos until retiring in 1954. Shaw hated fame, and perhaps this contributed to his reputation as a curmudgeon.
Like many jazz aficionados, I had the misfortune of being born just a wee bit too late. As such, I never got the opportunity to hear many of my musical heroes live and in the flesh. Nonetheless, I do have one feather in my musical cap that I’m eager to crow about — how I came to be closer personal friends with big band legend and superlative clarinetist Artie Shaw.
The year was 1997. My wife and I had been married for all of a year, and had yet to start a family. That summer, we took a vacation to California. We purposely didn’t have many specific plans. We were going to rent a car in LA and slowly make our way up to San Francisco, stopping along the way as our muses directed.
At this point in my musical development, I had become quite a devotee of the music of Artie Shaw. I got my hands on every recording I could find. I studied his playing, and copied his solos. So when a drummer friend of mine heard of our vacation plans, he offered up this ridiculous suggestion: “Why don’t you try to meet Artie while you’re out there?”
I pretty much dismissed his idea out of hand, as I do with pretty much anything a drummer tells me. Nonetheless, the thought wouldn’t leave the back of my mind. The internet was still in its infancy back then, but there was, indeed, a website for Artie Shaw. I had no idea who was behind it, but it sold several CD’s and books by the swing legend, who was still very much alive at the age of 87 (he passed away in 2004). And there was an address listed on the website. An address in Newbury Park, California, which is where I already knew Artie Shaw had become one of American music’s great recluses. I suspected this might be the address of a manager, or perhaps a business office, but I scribbled it down, and stuck it in my luggage.
A few days later, my wife and I were driving on the LA Freeway, and there was a sign for “Newbury Park.” I talked her into letting us take a brief detour. We took the exit, and pulled into a gas station. I walked inside and showed the guy behind the counter the address. He indicated that we were all of five minutes away and gave me detailed directions.
His directions led us into a nice, solidly middle-class neighborhood. At the end of a cul-de-sac was one house, considerably bigger than all the others. We parked our rental car, and got out. There was a large iron-wrought gate, peppered with welcoming signs such as, “No Trespassing” and “No Solicitors.” A cat wandered out through the gate. That’s right – I petted Artie Shaw’s cat.
We rang the buzzer for the electronic intercom posted on the gate. We saw a curtain part and then return to its closed position. No answer. We buzzed a second time. Still no answer. The fierce guard cat nuzzled my leg. Thwarted in our efforts, we departed the Shaw compound.
Nonetheless, I was unable to stop ruminating over my failed quest. “I really think that was Artie Shaw’s house,” I kept telling my wife. “That must’ve been him gazing at us through the curtains. We petted his cat!”
Back at the hotel, after humoring my ramblings for a while, my wife finally offered a suggestion. “Why don’t you just call him?” she said. I scoffed. “I don’t have his phone number.” “Well, just call information,” my darling bride replied. I scoffed even more. “There’s no way his number is going to be listed.” “Well, just try anyway,” replied my patient spouse.
So, I called information. “City and state please.”
“Newbury Park, California.” “What listing?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the pleasant woman on the other end of the line, “I don’t have any listing for that name.”
I was about to hang up the phone in a fit of smugness when this lovely woman suddenly chimed in, “Well, I do have a listing for an ‘A. Shaw.’”
“Is it at…” and I read her the address we had visited just the other day. “Yes, sir, it is,” was the reply.
In utter amazement, I wrote down Artie Shaw’s phone number.
The next day, we returned to the same gas station we had previously stopped at off the LA Freeway, just down the road from Artie’s abode. As I was a starving musician in 1997, I did not yet own a cell phone. So I picked up a pay phone, and dialed the number I had received.
“Hello?” said a gruff, aged voice on the other end of the line. “Is Mr. Shaw available?” I inquired meekly.
“Who wants to know?” came the immediate reply.
“Well, my name is Seth Kibel, and I’m a professional clarinetist, and a huge fan of his, and I’m right down the road, and I was just wondering if I could maybe come over and shake his hand since he’s been such a profound influence on me and he’s my hero and I’ll just take a minute of his time and it would mean so much to me, “ I rambled.
“Well, Mr. Shaw doesn’t see visitors.”
At this point, I had pretty much figured out that I was speaking to the man himself, so I called his bluff.
“Well, Mr. Shaw, I apologize for the imposition, but I’ve come all the way from Virginia and I’m just down the road at the gas station. I promise I won’t take more than a minute of your time.”
“I’m an old man living by myself. You could tie me up and steal all my things,” he yelled. That idea hadn’t actually occurred to me, but now that he mentioned it…
Anyhow, this continued on for about a minute or two, until I played the last card in my hand. “Mr. Shaw, I have a copy of your autobiography (The Trouble With Cinderella – An Outline of Identity, one of the strangest autobiographies you’ll ever read) with me, and it’d mean so much if you’d just sign it for me.”
He didn’t bite. “Mail it to me, and I’ll sign it and send it back,” was the angry reply, followed by a click and a dial tone.
Dejectedly, we departed Newbury Park, and we made our way north, so I could drown my sorrows in Napa Valley.
Upon our return to our home in Alexandria, Virginia, I proceeded to write a long love note to the cantankerous clarinetist. I explained how important his music was to me, and how profoundly he had influenced my own musical development. I talked about my own career and ambitions, and how I aspired to follow in his footsteps. I included several CD’s of my own recordings and, of course, the aforementioned autobiography.
About six months later, I received a plain brown envelope in the mail. Inside was the book I mailed to Newbury Park. No note, no signature, no nothing. I checked every page for some sign that Artie Shaw had acknowledged my existence, but to no avail.
So there you have it. The story of how I came to be close personal friends with Artie Shaw. Or, at least, petted his cat.