So, What’s A Beguine?

This post originally appeared February 2, 2018, on the Chile Today Hot Tamale! website. (

Thank you for your kind words on last week’s blog, the first on the Chile Today Hot Tamale website. I received positive comments from as far away as Tokyo. Kathy thought the write-up was cute, but suggested that I write about something “hot,” given that we make chile pepper sauces and pepper jams. I happen to be in Wilmington, NC, at the 38th edition of the North Carolina Jazz Festival, so naturally my thoughts turn to Le Jazz Hot. But the truth of the matter is that “hot” jazz is not my favorite. Neither is “cool” jazz. Here comes a confession, which may shock even my closest friends and acquaintances: my favorite jazz is the swing music that reigned during the 1940s. That would explain why, when you ride with me in my pick-up truck, you find the radio tuned to Sirius 73, “40s Junction”.

Like many a child, I discovered this music through the record collection of my parents. Somewhere in their collection was a Longines Symphonette Society sampler of 1940s music, a two-album masterpiece of hits by various artists. I was especially enamored of Volume 1, and played that record until the grooves were worn out. A good friend of mine happened to own that exact same record, and he gave it to me a few years ago. I now get to wear out another set of grooves.

Far and away, my absolute favorite cut on that album was Where or When, a lovely Rodgers and Hart tune from an eminently forgettable 1937 Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie, “Babes in Arms”. What made the tune special was the swinging rendition by Artie Shaw’s 1938-1939 band. At that point in my young life, I became a fan of Artie Shaw’s music. (About his politics and personal life, the less said, the better.)

My favorite musical instrument is the piano. It doesn’t much matter whether the pianist is overpowering, like the late Oscar Peterson, or beautifully understated, like Rossano Sportiello, or just pure genius, like Dick Hyman: the piano is a one-piece orchestra, complete in itself. But the musician who earns the most respect from me is the musician who can conquer that devilishly difficult musical instrument, the clarinet. Artie Shaw was one such musician. So was Benny Goodman.

My friend and I enter into a pointless debate from time to time about which musician, Shaw or Goodman, was the better clarinetist. I go with Shaw, he goes with Goodman. We all have our favorites, and that is that. A few years ago, at a jazz festival, I heard a tale that involved both of these titans of the big band era, from another musician who experienced the event first hand. I suppose it doesn’t matter whether he was telling the truth, or not. The story is a good one, whether or not true.

Before I get into the tale, it would help if you knew that Where or When, my personal favorite Shavian tune, was not his most famous. If you look at any collection of Artie Shaw hits, you are sure to find the Cole Porter tune “Begin the Beguine” at the top of the list.

On to the story. This musician was visiting Benny Goodman one day at Goodman’s Connecticut home. He happened to look into the back yard, and he saw something interesting. Goodman had a bird feeder hanging from a tree, but the chain holding the feeder passed through the center of a 78 RPM record, which perched precariously on top of the feeder. He commented on this, and Goodman admitted that this was his own invention. The squirrels used to climb down the chain and eat the bird seed, but when he put the 78 on top, they stopped, because once the squirrels hit the record, it tilted, and the squirrels slid off. The visiting musician allowed that this was a bit of genius, and they moved on to other topics.

A bit later in the day, the musician’s curiosity got the better or him, and he slipped out the back door to investigate this record-protected bird feeder. As you can imagine, the record hanging on the chain was in rather foul shape, having been scratched by squirrels and used as a toilet by the birds. Still, he managed to clean off the center of the record to examine the label.

It was “Begin the Beguine” by Artie Shaw!