Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Artie Shaw: Not an evil genius. Just a jerk. And a genius

Is it possible to loathe the man/woman and, at the same time, be in love with their contribution to humanity? After reading Tom Nolan's excellent biography Three Chords for Beauty's Sake; The Life of Artie Shaw, the answer unquestionably is, absolutely. Whether or not this is fair to the late "King of the Clarinet" is much more complicated, as was Mr. Shaw.

Perhaps there are more talented clarinet players today fingering away, outside of a handful of NPR fans, in obscurity. 70 years ago, two of the best known people in the entire world were clarinet players. There was the "King of Swing", the often more popular Benny Goodman, and the man who was the better musician of the two, the amazingly self-taught Mr. Shaw. More astonishing is that Shaw was also, perhaps, his era's best blower (at least among white musicians) of the alto saw, his original instrument. And if you didn't believe the claim, the first person to tell you how wrong you were would have been Artie Shaw.

Except that Mr. Shaw wouldn't have simply said "you're wrong." He would have told you "you're full of s***", or "all those other players were s***", something along those lines. Even into his 80's and 90's, when Mr. Nolan was able to interview the aging jazz man several times in what became the basis for Three Chords, the four-letter synonym for defecation remained one of Shaw's favorites. Not only did he describe some of his musical contemporaries that way, he sometimes similarly described his bands audiences, treating them with outright contempt despite their adoration. Though his tone mellowed mildly as he got older, Shaw remained supremely confident - many would say supremely arrogant - of his place at the top of the musical heap, even though he didn't play in public and barely touched his instrument in private during the last five decades of his 94 years.

Many, but not all of his ex-wives, would also be described by Mr. Shaw with epithets, even as he fondly remembered falling in love with each of them. When we say Artie Shaw's ex-wives, we aren't talking about a couple, we talking about eight, including six marriages that lasted three years or less. As Nolan writes based upon his interviews or the memoirs of the eight, Mr. Shaw was impossible to live with, something Artie himself frequently admitted. He would charm, show interest, make love, fall in love - not necessarily in that order - but as soon as vows were exchanged, it was usually downhill from there. Mr. Shaw claimed to want someone with his intellect and in tune with his very liberal politics, yet Nolan says if one of his wives attempted to do just that, they were met with contempt. How dare a woman, his own wife indeed, show up the great Artie Shaw! Yet somehow, despite the brutal verbal putdowns he often hurled at his wives, Mr. Shaw usually remained on good terms with his ex-brides, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner in particular. He was one of the originators of the "It's Complicated" relationship status long before you could share that status on Facebook.

So what is there to love about a man like that? Well, there is a little thing called his remarkable solo in his recording of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust", his ethereal composition (and theme song) "Nightmare, his Gramercy 5 recordings which still sound fresh today, and of course his signature hit "Begin The Beguine", which Shaw grew to hate because that's all anyone wanted to hear, or so he complained. His library may be the greatest collection of clarinet recordings the world may ever see, all on a stick he taught himself to play. Nolan, like a lot of folks who write lovingly about jazz, sometimes gets a little carried away unpacking his adjectives in describing the beauty of Shaw's music, but there is no doubt that Shaw's body of work is phenomenal.

Another area where Mr. Shaw could be loved was on matters of race. Like many in the white jazz world, Shaw wanted to play with and be compared to what many consider the true jazz artists, the African-American pioneers such Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the lesser known but just as important Jimmie Noone, who may have been Shaw's equal, and some say his superior on the clarinet. In 1938, Shaw hired 23-year-old Billie Holiday to be one of his vocalists, even though he hated singers because they took the audience's attention away from him. Both he and Goodman bucked the entertainment world's color barrier by featuring black musicians; Shaw with the great trumpeter Roy Eldridge, among others. Shaw didn't win too many battles over race with theater owners, nightclubs, and other establishments, but it was the 1930's and 40's, and his were among the first knocks on the door that would eventually be kicked down by the civil rights movement.

Nolan writes in detail about the beautiful music, the composition of bands and the (many) breakups of bands when Shaw thought he had pushed the musical bar as far as he could. Three Chords also describes in detail Shaw's struggle to also become a successful writer, defends his capitulation to the Congressional committees investigating entertainers and Communism in the 1950's, and it tells us more about Shaw's life after he quit playing in 1954 than ever before. But it seems as if every other page, we meet someone else who provides variations on the same theme; Artie could be a nice guy, charming, but he was also an SOB. A rich person you would be if you had a dime for everyone who interacted with Shaw and who provided you with that description of him.

Why was Shaw this way? The only real explanation we are given from Nolan was the treatment a young Arthur Arshawsky received from his father, Harry. We are told that Harry frequently ripped Artie for trying to learn music and was, by all accounts, a lousy dad. While such treatment would understandably scar someone, the one fault I can find in Nolan's book is why Shaw wasn't able to overcome that, in addition to a difficult relationship with his mother, on a personal level to where he wouldn't treat people in much the same manner as an adult. Plenty of people have had horrible home lives as children and have grown up to be decent human beings. If there were any reasons Art Shaw wasn't able to never escape his father's contemptuous behavior, Nolan does not explore them.

Nolan also relies heavily on his interviews with Mr. Shaw, making much of the book one-sided, but this is typical of many biographies, and Nolan does take note to remind the reader of Shaw's propensity to make himself the hero in all of his stories. Three Chords is well written with chapters that remind you of the length of songs, some short and to the point like a popular hit song, and some longer and deeper like Mr. Shaw's "Concerto For Clarinet." Unlike many biographies, you won't love Artie Shaw the man after you read it, but you will definitely want to hear the music (or hear it again) that perhaps was, because Artie Shaw wouldn't have it any other way, the finest in the world.


  1. You nailed it... on the topics in the book and about the man, Artie Shaw. Nolan did a pretty good job of being objective and giving a somewhat balance view of Shaw. I personally have always wondered how a man could walk away from two sons, so I was pleased to read the quotes of Jonathan Shaw.

    Like Billie Holiday had said in a 1939 interview, Shaw didn't like her getting the attention when she did her two songs a night. In somewhat the same way I feel he might have been jealous that a young son would become the center of a wife's attention.

    David Susskind did an interview with Shaw when he was 78 and it allows a viewer to get an idea of the man's mind. It also allows a glimpse of how full of himself he could be.

    Again I agree Tom Nolan allows us more of a look at the man, and we always need to allow the Music to stand on its on merits. Remembering he had a group of fellow musicians that helped him achieve the results.

    Of course he would say everyone was just trying to get in on his praise.

  2. For those interested, the Susskind interview mentioned below is here:,vclip,1,0

    And I believe he is 74 at the time, not 78.

  3. "and the man who was the better musician of the two"... What's with that statement? Benny was objectively a far better musician. Perhaps you meant to say "performer" which would imply a personal preference. Every musician out there will tell you Benny was way up there above other Jazz musicians.

  4. Wow. Artie Shaw was a real swine.

  5. Artie Shaw played the clarinet smooth as silk.