Monday, 12 August 2013

Every Time I Listen To Artie Shaw, I Pine for Peter Graves

The Kingsport Post, 2nd July 1970.
It's true. I can't help it. After all, it's Peter Graves' fault that I know about Artie Shaw. It's his fault that I hear Begin the Beguine far too many times on Spotify. It's his fault that I'm listening to 'The Complete Gramercy Five Sessions' on YouTube. I don't know a lot about Artie Shaw, but I know I love it, much that same was as I know and love Bix Beidebecke from watching The Beidebecke Affair late at nights on S4C, and I know and love hot jazz because of the television adaptation of Jeeves and Wooster. Peter Graves gave me Artie Shaw, because Peter Graves was an excellent clarinetist.

I've been rather taken with Nimoy-lust these past few weeks. I still am. But I put a few minutes of Artie Shaw through my speakers, and I'm gone. I listen, and sometimes I imagine Peter Graves there in the orchestra, playing. But it's hard. There's something intangible about Peter Graves the clarinetist. Something secret and fleeting, like a rare bird.

This Is Your Life, 1971. This is a crop, but there's a watermark all over
Greg Morris. There's a bit of one still on Peter's head. Damn.
I'd like to load this post up with photos and news stories about Peter Graves and his clarinet, but that's hard too. Partly it's hard because my computer hard drive is currently in some kind of limbo, probably in a Royal Mail sorting office somewhere in the middle of England. On it there are Peter Graves photos, Peter Graves news articles, Peter Graves videos. All sitting in a padded envelope somewhere at the hands of the postal system... I'll have to see what I can salvage from Tumblr and my old-old hard drive. (I think I've pretty much got them all, thank God.)

Partly it's hard because Peter Graves and his clarinet is not something that pops up every day, more's the pity. Have we all heard the story of how he desperately wanted to play clarinet in the school band, and was sent home with the tuba, because of his size? How he cried over this and his father went to the school and persuaded them to let him take up clarinet instead? Well, that's the story. He loved the clarinet and didn't look back. I believe he tells it somewhere in this Unscripted interview, which is worth watching anyway, just because it's wonderful.

After a stint in dance bands in his youth he concentrated on acting. A youthful Peter with his clarinet is something you just don't see, just as you don't, god help me, see images of him winning the State Hurdles Championship when he was eighteen. Imagine that. Imagine the eighteen year old Peter Aurness, white shorts, a white shirt of some description (the more brief the better), golden-haired, standing on the field in the Minnesota sun after winning the title, that smile on his face, bending a little with his hands on his thighs, panting and glistening with sweat, trying to get his breath. Imagine him walking into the showers afterwards, glowing with triumph, and standing there with the water twisting and cascading down his body.

Ahem. I was talking about clarinets.

During WWII, with his brother James, fall 1944.
Let's imagine this. A young Peter Graves, maybe in the early 50s, maybe even earlier. A sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year old Peter Graves (let's go with eighteen to keep it decent.) Imagine this Peter Graves (right), during WWII. Those big hands, always impeccably manicured, well-shaped nails. An open-necked shirt, perhaps, if we're lucky and he's just practising. His clarinet in his hands. He's brought alive by the music. His eyes are alight. He's moving a little with the beat. His fingers are moving from key to key in unconscious excellence. Perhaps later he's performing with the dance band. Shirt and tie. Smoke wreaths in the air. Afterwards he comes home and loosens his tie and sets down the clarinet case and just lolls in a chair with a scotch in his hand, his legs long and stretched out and a cigarette between his lips. (I've definitely slipped into the slightly older Peter Graves there.)

It's no good. I can't do it justice. There are people who can wax lyrical about Peter Graves far better than me.
This elusive young Peter Graves is something so desirable I even wrote a novel imagining him as playing the central character. Of course, he plays the clarinet in the novel. But I have no pictures of a young Peter Graves with his clarinet. Nothing from before the 60s. He even performed with it, later, on the Dean Martin Show, but is there footage of this on YouTube? Is there hell. Nothing but the short snatches on his memorial tape, and something from 2009. (The memorial video is below. The 2009 one is here, but I can't get blogspot to admit it exists.)

Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful to have those videos, but I wish there were more. He could also play the saxophone, I believe, and perhaps the piano, since I've seen a photo of him at the piano in later life. By all accounts he was a musician, rather than a man who just played about with an instrument. We don't get to see this in the reserved Jim-Phelps-Peter, or in the skilled-horse-rider-Peter, or the adorable-while-acting-drunk-Peter. It's something that escaped all the film cameras and a lot of the press scrutiny. Maybe I should be glad he had this elusive joy to himself, for his friends and family. But I wish I could see a whole lot more of it.

So here I am, listening to Artie Shaw, and pining.

March, 1970.
On the Dinah show, on hobbies. As if it were a hobby...

Peter Graves performs at the White House in 1976 (story here.)

At his home, I believe, perhaps in 2009.

Here's that photo with the piano, just to cap it all off, December 8th, 2009.


  1. You and I must meet someday. The central character in my novel is also Peter Graves. He's even named Peter except he plays the coronet. He is Jim Phelps and he is Spock: curious, brilliant, honorable and a little angry. He has very dark hair but his eyes are blue.

    1. Tell me more about this novel :-) In mine he is a very young airman in WWII, and also a pioneer in C19th Minnesota (it's complicated.)