Sunday, February 13, 2011

“Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw" by Tom Nolan

The other day I had lunch with Alan Rinzler, an old friend who happens to be one of the great book editors (if you doubt me, check I can attest to Alan’s gifts--he edited my first book when he was at Bantam; if you’re a fledgling writer with book aspirations, consider working with Alan).
Anyway (a word Alan would suggest I cut), we talked about current reads, and I told him I’d just finished Tom Nolan’s excellent biography of the great clarinetist, Artie Shaw.
Turns out Alan had known Shaw casually in the 60s, meeting with the musician to discuss Shaw’s mammoth autobiographical novel, a work that eventually spanned more than 1,000 pages but was never published. Alan conceded that Shaw was an interesting guy, as well as “one of the most egotistical, self-centered people I’ve ever met.”
If you read “Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake,” you’ll see that Alan was absolutely right. Here are two takes on Shaw from the book:
*”He’s got to be the most selfish man that ever lived.”—Ted Hallock, who conducted 22 hours of interviews with Shaw for a radio series called “The Mystery of Artie Shaw.”
*”Artie was probably the most egocentric person I’ve ever known.”—Jonathan Shaw, son.
But, oh, could the man play the clarinet.
Born Avram Issac Arshawsky in New Haven, Shaw (1910-2004) taught himself to play the sax and clarinet, and by the 1930s he had established himself as one of the most gifted clarinetists around, rivaling the King of Swing himself, Benny Goodman. Shaw fronted several popular bands during the height of the Swing Era and recorded scores of chartbusting records, the most famous his rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine.”
But Shaw was a restless man. An autodidact, he read voraciously (building a massive library) and wanted to write short stories and novels (he did publish a collection of three novellas and an autobiography). Several times, he walked away from music, living on farms or holing up in various houses or apartments he owned or rented over the years
Devilishly handsome (emphasis on devil), Shaw married eight times over his long life. His wives included actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes, as well as writer Kathleen Winsor, author of 1944’s bestselling bodice-ripper, “Forever Amber.” Nolan includes Shaw remembering the great cabaret singer, Lee Wiley: “She was a--beautiful young woman (in 1938). In bed, she would say things like ‘You are lying next to the greatest ass in New York.’ She was a funny woman. And very hip . . . We used to have fun.”
And you thought the Sexual Revolution started in the 1960s.
In 1954, Shaw eventually made good on his goal to quit playing music, but not before recording perhaps the greatest music in his career with a combo that included the great Hank Jones on piano. Available finally on CD as “The Last Recordings,” the music is innovative, swinging and, at times, absolutely beautiful. It’s a shame Shaw didn’t keep playing with smaller groups, but at least we have these--as well as Nolan’s incisive biography.
If you like jazz, treat yourself to Shaw’s music, either with the combo or the big bands. Shaw said his goal was to play “three chords for beauty’s sake.” He played a hell of a lot more than three perfect chords in his life. Just listen to the music.


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