Review of Three Chords for Beauty's Sake
The Life of Artie Shaw
A biography of clarinetist Artie Shaw has been published. Its title is Three Chords for Beauty's Sake...The Life of Artie Shaw, W.W. Horton Co., by Tom Nolan. While this biography is a welcome survey of Shaw's life, it is far from definitive. Mr. Nolan, like many interviewers, researchers, and documentarists before him, devotes far too many pages to quoting Mr. Shaw, thus perpetuating many of Shaw's "rationalizing smokescreens", as they were so aptly described by Gunther Schuller in his book The Swing Era (Oxford University Press, 1989). Mr. Nolan might have been able to get away with this if he had balanced Shaw's version of reality with independent research. Unfortunately, the balance in this biography is tilted in the direction of Shaw's recollections, and his unseemly rants against most of his colleagues in the music profession, which undercuts the authoritativeness of this biography.
Nevertheless, Mr. Nolan did do some original research (as opposed to citing to periodicals or memoirs). He located information about the birth and death dates of Shaw's parents, and about Shaw's various childhood homes. He also interviewed a number of persons who either lived with Artie Shaw or worked closely with him over lengthy periods of time, especially in the later decades of Shaw's life. The information gleaned from those interviews assists greatly in trying to understand Artie Shaw.
Most notable among these were the recollections of Joanne Lupton, who lived with Shaw from 1973 to 1980. Ms. Lupton, now Dr. Lupton, a person who obviously has great intelligence and a discerning mind, provided many insights into Shaw's personality, and at least one hilarious, and very characteristic, anecdote involving Shaw's behavior in a Chinese restaurant. She also recalled Shaw's various attempts to write, and how she felt that his writing very often was emotionally empty, and why she felt that way.
Another woman in Shaw's life was Jan Curran, a journalist and publicist with whom he worked in the 1980s, after he had allowed formation of the Artie Shaw Orchestra, led by clarinetist Dick Johnson. Ms. Curran is described as resembling "Ava Gardner in her prime". She related a number of rather chilling episodes involving Shaw's temperamental outbursts, and his outsized ego. She also related a very sad episode where Shaw's son Jonathan attempted to reunite with his father while the then-new Shaw band, with a curmudgeonly Artie acting as non-playing front man, was appearing at the Blue Note in New York City in 1985. This incident pointed up Shaw's inability to bond emotionally with anyone, even his own son, indeed even with himself, and his psychotic insistence on "rigidly maintaining his impenetrable intellectual façade", as Gunther Schuller so accurately described it. Jonathan himself is later quoted in the book, and revealed an understanding of his father that few others ever had.
The title of this biography indicates that it is about the life of Artie Shaw. This is misleading, because so much of Artie Shaw's life was wrapped up in the music he made. Yet there is almost nothing about Shaw's music in the book, aside from a few awkward descriptions of some of Shaw's most famous records. Perhaps a more accurate title would have been: "Who Was Artie Shaw?" Unfortunately, the Nolan biography leaves unanswered as many questions about that as it answers.
The crux of that inquiry is as follows. Shaw was an only child. His mother Sarah Straus, an Austrian Jewish immigrant, by all accounts, was an insecure and manipulative woman. His father Harry Arshawsky, a Jewish immigrant from Odessa, Russia, was largely baffled by life in America, and was insensitive, but not malicious. Shaw's parents appear to have been mismatched, so there was constant marital discord in the home young Arthur grew up in. Early on, Shaw's mother became suffocatingly protective of her only child, and marginalized her husband from their son by spoiling young Arthur. This process was later exacerbated by Harry's dislike of his son's obsessive and unending squeak-filled saxophone practice sessions, which Sarah tolerated. Soon, it became a situation where Sarah and Arthur were aligned against Harry who was endlessly vilified by Sarah to Arthur. Soon thereafter, Harry departed. From that time on, it was Sarah and Arthur against the world. She inculcated Arthur, who as a Jewish son of foreign parents in an American Christian world, had developed a severe inferiority complex, with the idea that he was as good as anybody, indeed he was better than anybody, and that if he was challenged, he had to fight back and show them. This was the source of Shaw's arrogance, his insufferable pedantry, the mile-deep chip on his shoulder, and his inability to trust anybody. It was also the source of his obsessive drive for perfection, first as a saxophonist/clarinetist, later as a bandleader and jazz virtuoso.
Within a short time thereafter, a teen-aged Arthur began to earn money playing the saxophone, and began to provide the bulk of the money needed to run the household. Sarah's smothering "concern" for her son, and Arthur's growing desire for independence, led to an emotional rupture between them, with Sarah heaping guilt on Arthur. Although Arthur began live on his own away from his mother, he continued to provide money to her to assist with her living expenses, and to endure her meddling, albeit from afar.
Much later in his life, after years of psychoanalysis, Artie Shaw unraveled this family dynamic, and came to understand it intellectually. Unfortunately, he was never able to clear the emotional wreckage in his own psyche. Shaw's relationship with his mother (who died in 1964) remained distant and strained; his early resentment of his father, who died in 1930, hardened into pernicious hatred. Mr. Nolan cites an incident that evidently occurred when Shaw was ninety-two years old. Shaw's son Jonathan, who must be commended for repeatedly attempting to have a relationship with his father, was trying to discuss Shaw's father with him. Shaw turned this conversation into a diatribe against his father, who at that time had been dead for over seventy years. He still felt that he had to prove something to his father. Artie Shaw never learned how to get over things. And he never learned how to trust other people, or to have a relationship with them based on mutual respect. With Shaw, it was his way or no way. As he so often told Joanne Lupton: "He who pays, commands." He felt he always had to position himself to command.
Mr. Nolan buys into Shaw's obsessive assertions that the music he made with his last Gramercy Five (1953-54) was the best of his career, and after having ascended to that rarefied plateau, he felt it was impossible to remain in music and do anything better, so he retired. This is another of Shaw's "rationalizing smokescreens". From 1938 until the end of his career as a performing musician, Artie Shaw made music that was always of very high quality, and with each of his bands, he made at least some music that was truly remarkable. The ratio of remarkable music made by Artie Shaw's last band was no higher or lower that at previous times during his career. If Shaw had wanted to remain on the scene, he could have continued to do new things and make remarkable music. But by 1954, for a number of reasons, he did not want to remain on the scene any longer. He no longer wanted to do the intense practicing/playing that any virtuoso has to do to keep his performances at top levels. He also knew that audiences were never again going to receive his music, regardless of its quality, as enthusiastically they had during the swing era. Jazz was moving in directions that did not coincide with his tastes or preferences. And he wanted to permanently get off the road and do other things. The royalties from the recordings he made in the 1930s and 1940s allowed him the financial independence to retire at age 44.
Another reason why Shaw left music when he did, and left the United States for several years, was addressed somewhat in the Nolan biography: the McCarthy hysteria that swept him up, and resulted in him testifying before the House Un-American activities committee. Shaw's performance before that committee in May of 1953 may have resulted in him "naming names" (off the record), that is, revealing the identity of persons he knew to be Communists. This was a tack that proved to be disastrous to the careers of others who worked in the entertainment business. They were regarded as "stool-pigeons", reviled by their co-workers, and at the same time regarded as pariahs (Reds!) by those who were in positions to offer them employment.
Also, I found a number of factual errors which make me wonder how Mr. Nolan cross-checked information that ultimately appeared as fact in the book. For example, on page 47 it is stated that Shaw "...said an adamant no to Claude Thornhill's offer to help get him onto Ray Noble's band..." while he was on his first great hiatus from his career in music, living in Bucks County, PA in 1933. Neither Claude Thornhill nor any of the other American musicians who joined his American band could have joined Ray Noble's American band in 1933 because it didn't yet exist. Ray Noble did not come to the United States from England until early in 1935. On page 56, again relying on Shaw's memory alone, Mr. Nolan quotes Shaw as saying there were three bands on "that Camel program" (Benny Goodman) "...Xavier Cugat, and some sort of American band, terrible. They were the three." What Shaw was remembering was not the CBS Camel Caravan network radio show on which the Benny Goodman band alone was featured in the late 1930s, but the NBC Let's Dance radio show, which ran from late 1934 into mid-1935, where BG did indeed appear with two other bands, Xavier Cugat's and Kel Murray's. On page 63 we are told that Shaw, in the spring of 1936, went to the Famous Door, a jazz club on 52nd Street in Manhattan, "...to play with (Bunny) Berigan's outfit that included (Joe) Bushkin, (Eddie) Condon, Bud Freeman and Dave Tough." Bunny Berigan was not the leader of that combo; vocalist Red McKenzie was. Bud Freeman and Dave Tough were then employed by Tommy Dorsey, and were not members of that group, though they did occasionally sit-in. On page 70-71, it is stated that while the Shaw string quartet band was in Dallas, TX at the Adolphus Hotel in late 1936, and very early 1937 "...Tommy Dorsey ...was across the street at the Baker Hotel...riding high...with Bunny Berigan on trumpet and a couple of hit records (Marie, Song of India)." In fact during this time, Tommy Dorsey was in Manhattan. He had just started his tenure as the featured band on the NBC Raleigh-Kool radio show. So was Bunny Berigan, who was then still being featured on CBS's Saturday Night Swing Club, and getting together his own big band. The TD band, with Berigan being used strictly as a featured trumpet soloist, would not record Marie and Song of India until January 29, 1937. The Victor record bearing those two tunes would not have been released until probably March of 1937. By then, Shaw's string quartet band had been disbanded.
I am also somewhat puzzled by Mr. Nolan's decision not to include in the book the surname of the young woman who was probably Shaw's first "serious" girlfriend, Betty Goldstein. Shaw began a relationship with Ms. Goldstein in Cleveland in the late 1920s while he was there serving an apprenticeship with the Joe Cantor and Austin Wylie bands. She was also in the car on the night of October 14, 1930 in Manhattan when Shaw accidentally struck and killed a pedestrian while driving.
Mr. Nolan also fails to mention the substantial loan made by Shaw's last wife, actress Evelyn Keyes, to him, which Shaw never repaid while he lived. After Shaw's death, Ms. Keys sued Shaw's estate and finally did obtain repayment.
And so it goes.
There is much more to the story of Artie Shaw's life than what is presented in the Nolan biography. Still, what is presented is a good first step in the direction of finally answering the vexing question: who was Artie Shaw?
Michael P. Zirpolo,
"Mr. Trumpet--the Trials, Tribulations
and Triumph of Bunny Berigan"
All rights reserved, 2010.