The already popular quintet formation seems fond of naming itself as a "Five" of one sort or another -- notes, chambers, Americans, guys named Moe, fakers, gravediggers, primaries, after hours and much more than five more. With all of that there is nonetheless only one distinct use of the Gramercy Five combo name. That was by famous swing bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw, who utilized the moniker to represent different small groupings through more than a dozen years of his career. Like everything Shaw was involved in including his career itself as well as his marriages, the existence of the group was strictly an off and on again thing. This resulted in many changes in lineup, but Shaw's considerable fame, status, and pocketbook meant that when he was ready to hire new members they would be comers.
Jazz buffs can drop some serious names in relationship to Shaw's sidemen in versions of the Gramercy Five. On electric guitar alone he managed to seat Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and Joe Puma at various times. There are other reasons why the band is significant to the history of the genre, however. Shaw pioneered use of the small group as a band-within-a-band during big band programs, which like similar ventures by rival Benny Goodman, upped the spectacular ante of jazz, including the importance of exciting soloists. The Gramercy Five is also one of the few examples of the harpsichord being used in jazz. Pianist Johnny Guarnieri made this move in 1940 at work with the first version of the group to be recorded. The harpsichord was another of Shaw's generous references to classical music, also including use of a string quartet four years previously. By adding in electric guitar, Shaw can be seen as a visionary in art pop circles, providing they can get their eyes focused.
Trivia buffs may succeed in piling up further monumental evidence of the Gramercy Five's individuality. It is true that it represents one of the only examples of a group named after a New York telephone exchange. When presented as the Artie Shaw Gramercy Five, as it often is, it is also a rare example of the numerical representation of a band not actually including the leader. With Shaw out front blowing, the number of musicians actually featured was six, not five. The Dave Clark Five, on the other hand, featured leader Dave Clark as one of five guys onstage.
Gramercy Five sides such as "Concerto for Clarinet," "Summit Ridge Drive" and "Special Delivery Stomp" were extremely popular, extending well beyond the noses of trivia hounds. Subsequent reissue action involving the Shaw discography has also extended something, that being the life of the Gramercy Five itself. While never together as long as Goodman's similarly popular small combos, the Gramercy Five was held in such esteem that any of Shaw's small group recordings tend to be passed off as Gramercy Five performances whether then name was in play or not. Shaw did start-up a very short-lived new Gramercy Five in 1953, however, which he quickly abandoned to try dairy farming again in Skekomeko, NY. ~ Eugene Chadbourne