book review: Three Chords For Beauty’s Sake:

The Life of Artie Shaw by Tom Nolan

This book may seem tangential on a site devoted to film, but music is one of my passions, and Artie Shaw was part of a show-business era that fascinates me; he remains one of my all-time favorite musicians. A brilliant clarinetist, he became a major star of the big band era with a string of hit records, including “Stardust,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “Frenesi.” If you insist on a Hollywood connection, he cut a wide swath through movieland and was married to four beautiful actresses: Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Doris Dowling, and Evelyn Keyes. (Connoisseurs of female pulchritude will want to note that he thought Betty Grable had

—the most beautiful body he ever saw.)

Shaw was also one of the most interesting, contradictory, exasperating characters of the past century. He made beautiful, timeless music, but had a brooding restlessness and intellectual curiosity that could never be satisfied. He repeatedly walked away from show business, and put down his clarinet in the 1950s, never to play again in public. Even when documentarian Brigitte Berman made a celebratory, Oscar-winning feature about him in 1985, he sued her and effectively kept the film out of circulation for twenty years.

Tom Nolan has done a remarkable job of capturing Shaw on paper, in all his glory and self-inflicted misery. He enables the reader to empathize with Shaw—as much as anyone could—and share his highs as well as his lows.

Artie Shaw in his natural element, surrounded by beautiful women (Ann Rutherford, June Preisser, and his future wife Lana Turner) in this publicity photo for the MGM movie Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

Nolan also knows his music. A talented wordsmith, he can capture the feeling of great musical moments like the recording of “Troubled” in which a not-yet-famous Shaw participated along with Frank Trumbauer, Bunny Berigan, an equally young Glenn Miller, Roy Bargy, Artie Bernstein, and Johnny Williams (father of the famed composer) on November 20, 1934. Here is his summary of the finished piece:

“ ‘Troubled’ was an intricate line, graceful but jittery, done in a spare and clever arrangement (maybe by Miller). Trumbauer and Berigan were heard in brief solos; then Shaw came in on alto sax for a subtle, forceful eight bars. Frankie took a half-chorus C-melody solo full of his leaping, lyrical rumination. Then Art returned—on clarinet, with sixteen bars of reined-in ecstasy, gleeful as an imp dancing on a grave. The ensemble played a brief passage before Berigan took off on a fiery solo as Williams kicked things along with an urgent whomp on each fourth beat. The whole ensemble returned for the final ride-out, with Shaw’s euphoric clarinet, soaring above like the wrath and love of God. Tension and release, drama and catharsis, an unforgettable experience in under three minutes. Shaw might choose to labor forever in the radio mills, or read books and keep studying until insight over took him—but somewhere in his heart or head or gut, young Art must have known he was born to make music like this.”

Nolan is a steady guide through the turbulent waters of Shaw’s life and career. He doesn’t dwell on the negative, which a less admiring author could easily do, yet he reveals the private and public man with all his faults. There is humor here, and heartache, and the inscrutability that set Shaw apart from all of his contemporaries. This is a rich and rewarding portrait.

Sidenote: Unlike many fans from the big-band era, which was over before I was born, I never felt the need to choose between Artie Shaw and his clarinet rival Benny Goodman. I love them both. That’s why I want to call your attention to an important new book called Benny Goodman: A Supplemental Discography by David Jessup (Scarecrow Press), which is meant to augment and update the groundbreaking reference work on BG compiled years ago by Russ Connor. This oversized hardcover volume incorporates new information, radio logs, and vital information that has only come to light in the era of internet research. Jessup tells me, “In addition to the recordings and broadcasts I've found since 1996, there are a couple films not too many people know about. I was able to detail a Dave Rubinoff Vitaphone short that Russ Connor mentioned (but never gave specifics on). And someone found a 1946 industrial film with Goodman and Victor Borge, promoting their NBC Radio series.” Nuff said.

I have other big band and jazz notes to share, especially regarding some new DVD releases, which I plan to post in the coming weeks. In the meantime, please check out these worthy books.

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June 2024