[Dixielandjazz] Artie Shaw biography reviewed

Robert Ringwald rsr at ringwald.com
Mon May 3 07:56:52 PDT 2010

'Three Chords for Beauty's Sake' by Tom Nolan (W.W. Norton; 430 pages; $29.95)
by Ted Gioia
San Francisco Chronicle, May 2, 2010

I'm not sure how many people younger than 30 would even recognize the name Artie
Shaw these days. Yet Shaw was not only the most famous musician in the United States
on the eve of World War II, but he also virtually invented the modern concept of
the celebrity. True, other performers enjoyed popularity and a large following before
this clarinetist became the hottest entertainer in America, but more than any other
musician of his day, Shaw anticipated the later cult celebrityhoods of Frank Sinatra,
the Beatles, Michael Jackson and other megastars.
Much like today's pop idols behaving badly, Shaw became almost more famous for what
he broke up and destroyed -- bands, marriages, relationships -- than for the masterpieces
he created. With Shaw, we also encounter the blurring between public and private
life so familiar to fans of today's stars. Above all, Shaw set the pattern for future
celebrities in his paradoxical stance toward the media, which he both scorned and
manipulated with the same virtuosity he brought to his clarinet.
Now Tom Nolan tries to tell the story of this mercurial life in his new biography,
"Three Chords for Beauty's Sake." Shaw presents challenges to any would-be biographer.
First of all, the musician left behind a well-known personal account, the eccentric
and rambling book "The Trouble With Cinderella," and no fewer than three of his ex-wives
published their own memoirs. A researcher today might want to second-guess these
firsthand narratives, but given the fact that Shaw was born 100 years ago -- the
centennial of his birth takes place on May 23 -- few are still living who can contradict
the surviving documents.
But the bigger challenge here is where to find a balanced approach to such a polarizing
figure. Ted Hallock, who worked with Shaw on a lengthy radio project, told the biographer:
"He's got to have been the most selfish man who ever lived."
"Artie was probably the most egocentric person I've known," adds the artist's own
son Jonathan. Yet countless people -- not just the eight wives, most of them well-known
celebrities themselves, but also the millions of fans -- succumbed to the appeal
of the man, and the emotional power of his music.
I've seen other biographers stymied by such complex figures, with the result that
they either get caught up in tawdry gossip or else settle for shallow hero worship.
But Nolan does an admirable job in avoiding both extremes, and instead somehow manages
to capture all the sides of this multifaceted figure.
We get the rags-to-riches story of the youngster, born as Arthur Arshawsky, the son
of poor immigrants who became the great bandleader with movie-star looks. We also
follow the drama of his later relationships, including the passion and conflicts
with spouses Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Yet Nolan does not neglect the body of
Shaw's work, as he guides us through the tremendous period from 1935 through 1954
when Shaw made recordings that still delight fans today.
Even before he became a household name, Shaw had impressed fellow musicians with
his exceptional clarinet work, and was in constant demand as a sideman, session player
and, finally, leader of his own orchestra. Then Shaw's 1938 recording of "Begin the
Beguine" became a runaway hit and allowed him to charge $10,000, an astronomical
sum in those days, for a week's engagement at a theater. Yet, at the peak of his
fame, Shaw startled fans by disbanding, and heading off to Mexico. But this retreat
from the public eye was just a cat-and-mouse game for Shaw, and before long he was
back with more huge hits, including his immensely popular performances of "Frenesi"
and "Stardust."
Breaking up the band and the marriage would serve as repeating patterns for Shaw.
He also called it quits on his orchestra in 1941 and again in 1942. Despite his constant
complaints about the indignities of the musician's life, he kept coming back for
more, until his final retirement from performing in 1954. As his final recordings
make clear, Shaw was still at the top of his game. Yet, though he would live another
half century, he would never again play the clarinet in public.
Nolan follows Shaw's trail over the ensuing decades. Even after ending his performing
career, Shaw did not give up his ambitions. At various stages, he planned to be a
novelist, a sharpshooter, a dairy farmer and a movie mogul, among other pursuits.
Finally, Shaw returned to the stage in the 1980s, but only as a conductor, with the
clarinet left untouched. "Three Chords for Beauty's Sake" follows Shaw's various
zigzags with aplomb, and Nolan shifts gears adeptly in pursuit of his subject. The
book is well paced and never lags, while the author addresses everything from litigation
to personal rivalries with fairness and a deft touch.
Toward the end of his life, Shaw grumbled about the impossibility of making sense
of his personal odyssey. "I don't know a damn thing," he lamented. "I don't know
what it's about. The longer I live the more mysterious it all is." Tom Nolan deserves
credit for penetrating this mystery, and making sense of a turbulent life that even
Artie Shaw himself had given up on explaining.
Ted Gioia's most recent book is "The Birth (and Death) of the Cool."

--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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