“Nightmare” was composed by bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw in 1936 and was first released by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra in 1938.
Shaw wrote “Nightmare” the day before his band had been scheduled to open the Hotel Lexington in New York City, New York, on August 21, 1936, with a remote wire hooked to the CBS radio network. Shaw had, in fact, been told that he would need to have a theme to play at the start and stop of the live radio broadcasts.
Having the right theme song was very important for bands at the time. A theme song was a band’s signature; it also established the band’s musical image. Furthermore, as Peter J. Levinson writes, a theme song ‘had to be distinctive and recognizable, especially in a band’s infancy when it would be getting its nationwide exposure on radio.’
Although many bands would often resort to using a Tin Pan Alley tune as their theme, Shaw decided to write his own. The resulting “Nightmare” was described by Richard Sudhalter as a ‘keening, almost cantorial melody in A minor, as different musically from the theme songs of his bandleading colleagues as Shaw was different from them personally and temperamentally.”
While many have noted the composition’s Hasidic nuances, Tom Nolan notes in his book Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times, that ‘song sleuths would claim to trace its main device to a variety of sources, from King Oliver’s “Call of the Freaks” to Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird.’ “Nightmare” would soon become a hit and an influential composition in its own right. Famously, for instance, it probably inspired the vamp of the “James Bond Theme” written by composer John Barry.
It also affected a whole generation of jazz listeners. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff remembered that ‘my own introduction to the jazz life began with a record of Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare.” I came from a home where any overt expression of emotion was calculated and measured lest it roar out of control. Standing in a record store one afternoon, however, I shocked myself by yelling in pleasure at the first bars of “Nightmare.”‘