Artie Shaw’s 1940 “Summit Ridge Drive” is seductive swing
By Tom Nolan
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There’s a funny moment in Second Chorus, the 1940 college-oriented Fred Astaire movie in which clarinetist Artie Shaw and his orchestra appear: An academic type jokes about a dissertation being done on “the future of the harpsichord in swing music.”
Artie Shaw, in the autumn of 1940, would make that odd-sounding concept a reality—and produce one of his most enduring hits, a masterpiece of small-combo jazz, “Summit Ridge Drive.”
In 1940, Shaw’s swing-kingdom archival, clarinetist-bandleader Benny Goodman, was fronting a sizzling sextet: a band within his big band that included the phenomenal electric-guitarist Charlie Christian. When Shaw formed a new orchestra that year, he too carved a separate combo from the ranks of his larger band. How might he make Artie Shaw and his Gramercy 5 as fresh and distinctive as Goodman’s small group?
As Johnny Guarnieri told Piano Jazz radio host Marian McPartland in 1981, he was already in Shaw’s big band when Shaw called him one day in the fall of 1940: “Shaw asked me if I’d ever played the harpsichord, and I said: ‘Certainly.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s great; we’re gonna make some records tomorrow.’ . . . I was lying! So I said, ‘Artie—I don’t know what a harpsichord is.’ . . . He says, ‘I have one up the house; let’s go up there tonight—and we’ll rehearse, and we’ll make some records tomorrow.’”
The pianist got the hang of the antique instrument (with its stiffer keyboard action) pretty fast, he told a writer from Time-Life records in 1973: “I went home and practiced until I could trill with the fourth and fifth fingers for twenty seconds, then I was okay.”
Also in the group that assembled on the morning of Sept. 3, 1940, at RCA Victor’s Hollywood recording studio were bassist Jud DeNaut, guitarist Al Hendrickson, drummer Nick Fatool and trumpeter Billy Butterfield. The second of four sides they all cut that day was a foot-tapping Shaw original, a kicking blues riff showcasing Butterfield’s muted but searing trumpet in tandem with Shaw’s expressive and irresistible clarinet. Shaw named this seductive piece after the canyon street he lived on in the Hollywood Hills, where the sextet had rehearsed the night before: “Summit Ridge Drive.”
The number epitomized all that was best about Shaw’s swing-era music: It was classy but gutsy, smartly arranged yet spontaneous, sophisticated but hard-swinging. Guarnieri made the harpsichord sound supple, and the rhythm section’s easy shag beat cushioned the soloists’ emotional punch. It seemed like the perfect 78rpm platter: three minutes and 18 seconds of consummate jazz.
“Summit Ridge Drive” sold well in its initial release and was a juke-box favorite. But the platter really took off after being featured in the well-regarded 1945 movie The Story of G.I. Joe during a scene where a bunch of U.S. soldiers in war-torn Europe listen to the Gramercy 5 and dream of home. A reissued “Summit Ridge Drive” became a million-seller and one of Shaw’s all-time favorite numbers, alongside “Begin the Beguine,” “Star Dust” and “Frenesi.”
The record’s appeal was long-lasting—and influential. The distinctive use of harpsichord on Rosemary Clooney’s breakthrough 1951 hit “Come on-a My House” was inspired by the Gramercy 5′s sound. When a new electronics era was ushered in by Texas Instruments in 1954, the record chosen for a public demonstration of the existence and vivid efficacy of the silicon transistor (by dunking a record player’s transistor-powered amplifier into a beaker of hot oil and having it keep working) was the Gramercy 5′s greatest hit.
“Summit Ridge Drive,” put together in an hour at a jam-session rehearsal (available most recently on a seven-disc set from Mosaic records), was a number Shaw played the rest of his musical life—recording it again with a 1950 Gramercy 5 and with his final 1954 combo (though in both cases with piano, not harpsichord). The blues riff stayed fresh; Shaw had a special facility for the blues.
But it was Shaw’s 1940 recording of “Summit Ridge Drive,” with its winning combination of clarinet, trumpet and harpsichord, that proved to be the classic. Characteristically, this hard-to-please artist was of two minds about that singular success. “The Gramercy 5,” he said of his original combo a few years before his death in 2004, “was just a gimmick that caught on.” But to that Time-Life writer in 1973, he’d conceded: “I’d made a record that was ahead of its time.”
Many others agreed—including Sam Phillips, the legendary Memphis record producer whose sessions with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash helped launch the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. “The best music gives us a unique and timeless solace,” Phillips told NPR’s Terry Gross in 1997. “Listen to ‘Summit Ridge Drive’ by Artie Shaw.”
Mr. Nolan is the author of Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw, to be published in May 2010 by Norton.