[Dixielandjazz] Artie Shaw biography reviewed

Robert Ringwald rsr at ringwald.com
Sat May 1 08:19:08 PDT 2010

Artie Shaw: Swing and Loathing
by David Gates
New York Times, May 2, 2010

Artie Shaw, the swing era's other great clarinetist, knew just about every romantic
self-immolator in the history of jazz. He roomed with both Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny
Berigan, he hired Billie Holiday to sing with his band and -- at least by his own
account -- he turned down Charlie Parker's bid to join his saxophone section. ("I
said, 'Bird, you couldn't play in my band, you're too much of an individualist!'")
Superficially, Shaw couldn't have been less like these doom-bound drunks and drug
addicts. In "Three Chords for Beauty's Sake," Tom Nolan's absorbing if somewhat sketchy
new biography, we see him drunk exactly once -- when he was in his teens and a prankish
band mate fed him shots of rye with beer chasers -- and once, at about 20, "half-stoned"
on weed with Berigan. Thanks to clean living, good luck and, surely, a measure of
cussedness, Shaw lived to be 94 and died, in 2004, the way Robert Frost  recommended:
"Better to go down dignified / With boughten friendship at your side / Than none
at all. Provide, provide!" He even kept his sense of humor, or at least his memory
of an old Myron Cohen joke. His personal assistant (who stayed with him for 11 years,
sometimes by dint of repeating the word "mortgage" to himself) and his home-hospice
caregiver were changing the old man's bedclothes during his last days and asked if
he was comfortable. "I make a living," he said. He did, too. Though Nolan's book
doesn't say so, Shaw's estate was probably worth around $3 million, and he hadn't
played on a record for half a century.
Yet "Three Chords for Beauty's Sake" is as grimly fascinating as any story of a young
flameout dying in the gutter. Shaw spent his first 44 years acquiring artistic mastery
-- Ray Charles called him "one of the greatest musicians that ever lived" -- as well
as money, fame and an array of America's choicest sexual trophies. How good was he?
Let him tell you. A musician he identified only as "a well-known clarinet player"
once asked if he was ever afraid he'd miss that fiendish altissimo high C that ended
his showpiece "Concerto for Clarinet," always the climax of his live sets. "I said,
'Put your hand on the table.' He did, and I said, 'Raise your index finger.' He did.
I said, 'Were you afraid you'd miss?' 'Well, no,' he said, and then, 'You mean, it's
like that?' 'If it isn't,' I said, 'don't mess with it.'"
And then, at the height of his powers, Shaw stopped playing the clarinet, walked
away from the music business and spent the next 50 years busying himself with dairy
farming, marksmanship, movie distribution, writing a never-to-be-finished autobiographical
novel -- anything except what he seemed put on earth to do. And wondering what his
life had been about. His ultimate pastime was telling and retelling his stories,
both in private and in public. "And he told them wonderfully," said the writer Aram
Saroyan, whose novelist father, William, had been a friend of Shaw's. "It was almost
like what replaced music, for him. He was always the central figure.... And the attitude
in the stories was the same, from beginning to end: 'I'm a gifted -- supremely gifted
-- human being; and... the world has endeavored to drive me crazy....' The stories
are great; they're fascinating. And then every so often... he's a little appalling."
Actually, thanks to psychoanalysis, Shaw had attained a bit more self-knowledge than
that (it was his father's disapproval, or maybe his mother's clinging, that had driven
him crazy), but those insights didn't seem to change anything.
He was born Avraham Ben-Yitzhak Arshawsky, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, in 1910;
his immigrant parents called him Arthur. The family moved to New Haven, Conn., where
he was taunted for being Jewish; where his father, a tailor, abandoned them; and
where he heard a vaudeville saxophonist perform a tune called "Dreamy Melody." Arthur
would have been around 13 (Nolan doesn't tell us exactly). Within two years, he'd
saved up, bought a sax of his own, taught himself to play and gotten himself expelled
from school to make his living with it, under the hyper-American name Art Shaw. By
the time he was 21, he'd also mastered the clarinet and was playing in the CBS Radio
Orchestra. "They used the best musicians in New York," he said, "for some of the
worst music." In fact, he had such contempt for the gig, which most musicians would
have regarded as a godsend during the Depression, that he staged the first of his
many retirements -- to a farmhouse in Pennsylvania with no electricity or running
water, where he earned money by cutting firewood and began writing a novel. How conflicted
was he? Let him tell you. One day he nearly chopped off a finger, and "the very first
thought I had was, 'I'll never have to play the clarinet again.'" Many years later,
just before his last retirement, one of his sidemen noticed the same ambivalence.
"It's one of those strange contradictions: he seemed much happier when he was playing
-- but he hated to play."
Shaw was back in the city in 1934, sitting in sax sections next to Benny Goodman,
a year older and his perennial alter ego; Goodman used to refer to Shaw as "the competition."
Shaw was dapper and devilishly handsome, while Goodman looked pudgy and professorial;
Shaw had the subtler harmonic sense, while Goodman generated more rhythmic excitement.
They respected each other's technical ability, but Shaw found a clever and convincing
way to belittle him: Goodman merely played clarinet; he himself played music. Before
the decade was out, they were fronting rival swing bands, selling millions of records
and performing before screaming crowds.
But Shaw, being Shaw, had contempt for what he'd worked so hard to get. After his
1938 recording of "Begin the Beguine" made him the equivalent of a rock star, he
gave an interview in which he called his audience "a bunch of morons." In November
1939, with a million dollars' worth of future bookings, he walked off the bandstand
at Manhattan's Hotel Pennsylvania and turned his orchestra over to its members. He
was back in 1940, with a new band, this time with strings, and new hits, "Frenesi"
and "Star Dust." He broke up another, still newer band in 1945 (supposedly to devote
his attention to his new wife, Ava Gardner), played classical music, put together
still more bands. In 1954, he made, at his own expense, a series of small-group recordings
he considered his finest work, then quit for good. Only once, he claimed, did he
ever pick up a clarinet again. Sometime around 1959, he "tried to play the Mozart
concerto. I played a couple bars -- but then that's all. It was so hard to get one
note the way I wanted to hear it." Goodman, by the way, died of a heart attack in
1986 while playing Mozart on his clarinet.
Gardner was the fifth of Shaw's eight wives (among various liaisons), whom he courted
and rejected the way he did his music, his public and his friends. Speaking of "the
people that were very close to him," one ex-girlfriend told Nolan she wasn't sure
"if he ever truly respected them." "I never married an intellectual, because I was
scared to," he explained. "I went the other way: broads you could make it with."
The wives included Gardner's fellow movie stars Lana Turner and Evelyn Keyes; the
novelist Kathleen Winsor, author of the much-banned best seller "Forever Amber" ;
and the daughter of Jerome Kern. ("I wanted to be in that family," Shaw said, in
one of his fits of self-insight. "I wanted to be the son.") The lovers, as Shaw liked
to make sure people knew, included the pinup goddess Betty Grable and the singer
Lena Horne. And darned if there wasn't something wrong with every one of them. Grable?
"Rather -- coarse." Gardner? "Her beauty ruled her." Turner? "Lana used to thrust
out her bosom like a pouter pigeon." Horne? "It was good, sexually, but...." Winsor?
"A frightened woman, really." And so on. "First he set 'em up, and then he humiliated
'em," a psychiatrist friend of Shaw's said. "It was part of the repeated battle with
his mother." Or was it ultimately about his father? "He had no use for me," Shaw
reflected at 92. "He gave me the contempt I had, that eventually made me quit the
music business. It wasn't a manly thing to do, to go up there and -- blow a horn
in front of a lotta people."
Shaw said his father "had to be a selfish bastard" for leaving his family. One journalist
who conducted a long series of interviews with Shaw echoed both the syntax and the
judgment in speaking of the son: "Absolutely he's got to be the most selfish man
that ever lived. So you've got this enormously narcissistic man in a cocoon, who
is quite happy. There's no tragedy, I guess -- other than for some of the women,
and the two sons." Oh -- have I forgotten to mention that Shaw had children? No wonder.
"I hardly see my sons," Shaw once said. "There's no point worrying about things that
are over." But his younger son, Jonathan Shaw, who became a celebrity tattoo artist
(another thing Nolan's book doesn't tell you), showed a surprising degree of compassion
for him. He called Shaw "a deeply unhappy man" who "didn't love anything or anybody....
Well, that's the tragedy of his life: that he was unable to give or receive love
-- because he'd never been given any love as a kid. Music is what intervened. That
was the saving grace, for Artie. He made beautiful music. He made beautiful art.
He was redeemed by his talent and his drive, and his obsession; I mean, it's noble.
He was born to lose, and he lived to win." True, as far as it goes. But after he'd
won, he kept on living. Most people -- including the exes who kept in touch with
him -- couldn't help being fond of the guy. "I always liked Artie," said his psychiatrist
friend. "And I'm not sure he liked anybody -- including me." But if Shaw ever made
much progress toward liking himself, "Three Chords for Beauty's Sake" gives no hint
of it.
David Gates's most recent book is "The Wonders of the Invisible World," a collection
of stories.

--Bob Ringwald
Amateur (ham) Radio call sign K6YBV
Fulton Street Jazz Band

Doesn't "expecting the unexpected" make the unexpected expected?

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