Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake
By Tom Nolan
W.W. Norton, 2010
Who is Artie Shaw ? This is a legitimate question for any young person, but also a valid request from anyone who tried to follow the man’s career. From his birth as Avraham Ben-Yizhak Arshawsky in the New York City of 1910, to his passing in Newbury Park, California, in 2004, the man who eventually chose to be Artie Shaw was the living embodiment of one of his own favorite clichés: watch what you dream for, you may get it.
The title of Tom Nolan’s new biography is half of another favorite Shaw maxim. As a creative musician, Shaw believed, you made ‘three chords for beauty’s sake, and the fourth to pay the rent’.
Shaw’s voice appears quite frequently throughout the book. The quotes come from his own excellent memoir, The Trouble With Cinderella, published in 1952 and only occasionally available since then. There are also no less than sixteen magazine and newspaper pieces by Artie Shaw. Nolan himself conducted extensive interviews with Shaw from 1990 until right before his passing. While each quote is sourced in the notes in the back of the book, there is precious little in the text itself that indicates what time period that a particular observation comes from. This fact can create an obstacle to answering the question posed at the top of this review.
In the decade from 1935 to 1945, the way many Americans heard their chords, for beauty and to pay the rent, was in front of a ballroom bandstand; dancing, and frequently just listening to one of the dozens of big bands that crisscrossed the country. Some were so-called ‘territorial’ bands that stayed in one region. With the rise of radio ‘remote’ broadcasts, a band’s music could become known from coast to coast, building an audience of dancers and record buyers. There were so-called sweet bands, such as Guy Lombardo’s, that played genteel pop music for society events. Then there were the pure swing bands, that featured instrumental and vocal soloists that drew on America’s distinctive musical creation, jazz. These bands used improvisation among soloists, and among the arrangers, who crafted the pop favorites of the day in a fashion that featured the talents of the bandleaders, which with few exceptions (Jimmy Lunceford, Andy Kirk ), were instrumentalists.
Artie Shaw joined this scene through a curious series of events that almost ended his career before it got started. Starting as a saxophonist, Shaw played with several territorial bands, winding up in Cleveland. Then, on a bored whim, he entered a newspaper contest to promote airplane races to be held in Cleveland. By submitting only the title of a song celebrating flying, (Artie’s submission was “Song of the Skies”) and a 150 word essay, Artie won an eleven day trip to Hollywood. The New York boy stuck in Cleveland had found an escape route. Joining a band in California, Shaw wound up on a tour that brought him to New York, where an event occurred that nearly derailed his life completely. After a surprise reunion with a girlfriend from Cleveland, Artie was showing her his old hometown in his new red roadster when a yacht chef stepped off the curb in front of Shaw’s car and was killed. The hit-and-run incident was reported to police . Though he was cleared of any criminal charges, Shaw wound up named in a civil suit for eighty thousand dollars. Since Artie was under twenty-one, his mother was sued too, and circumstances forced the two of them to share an apartment, and devote every penny of their combined incomes (Mrs. Arshawsky was a seamstress) to pay off the damages. When Shaw’s band finished their New York engagement and returned to California, the reedman was stranded without a job. He had to wait six months to qualify for a New York musician’s union card.
With his life at an impossibly low ebb, he took to wandering the streets at night with his clarinet. Author Nolan relates a turning point in a career about to end at its inception.
The spot Shaw found was a basement club down two flights of stairs, marked by an outside canopy. He stood on the sidewalk and listened, fascinated, to the sound of a pianist playing some sort of ragtime, it sounded like, but with a very driving beat. “I thought, ‘Oooh, what the hell is that ?’The guy was playing his ass off, you know, really great piano.” After a while the music stopped, and a big black fellow about forty-three, came outside, wearing a derby hat and smoking a cigar. I said, ‘Who’s that cat in there playin’ ? That’s great shit!’ He says ‘You lookin’ at him.’ I said, You’re kiddin’ me! Are you the guy?’ He said ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Can I sit in?’ He says, ‘That your horn?’ He talked ‘haaawn.’ He says, ‘Sure’’”
Shaw went downstairs and inside. “I was the only white guy in the place, and I felt very self-conscious about it; but after a while, it was all right” The club’s piano was a beat-up wreck; an old scarred upright with chipped keys, and the whole front part missingso the hammers were exposed. That didn’t bother this fellow; he made it sound great. He knew what he was doing.
The two men, both seated, made music just for themselves, and whoever else was around. “ . He had a peculiar way of playing.” Shaw said, “not like anything I’d ever heard. Riffs that were so strange, changing keys in the middle, and coming back. He was very interesting.” Willie “the Lion” Smith was the man’s name, and it was clear he was born to play the piano. “He’d sit very straight, “ Art said, “and his fingers would do these things. He’d make these hawking noises—hok, hok, hok’— off beat; I figured that’s why they called him ‘the Lion’ Haw-haw-haw, like a little roar. He was quite a guy, absolutely natural. He had this ability”
The Lion’s Music drew from many traditions; ragtime, Victorian parlor piano, German classical. He said practicing Bach strengthened his left hand. Strains and patterns of American impressionists such as MacDowell could be heard in his compositions; yet he was as powerful a stride man as his buddy James P. Johnson. Willie borrowed from what he liked but his playing was all his own.
Shaw’s career survived the lawsuit, the unasked–for reunion with his mother, and the waiting period for his union card. Soon he was signing on with the big names of the era: Tommy Dorsey, a master trombonist, took him on in early editions of the band that eventually brought up a skinny young singer named Frank Sinatra. Shaw also used his skills doubling on saxophone and clarinet to land jobs on the many radio programs that broadcast live from New York. It was in that environment that he occasionally worked with the man whose name would forever be linked with his. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were rivals from the mid thirties until Goodman’s death in 1986. Although cordial to each other, competition for record sales, musical reputation, and sidemen for their respective bands gave their personal encounters a raw edge. According to Shaw, The tone of this relationship was established early on.
“ I used to play lead alto; Benny played second alto—he had a lousy saxophone sound; terrible. And we were playin’ a program together one time. There was a part written in an arrangement, piece was ‘Lover—dum-da, dum da dum da, dum da dum—lead alto, playing a sort of , obligato, against the brass. It was in my part; I was playin’ lead. And it was a nice sounding thing; radio music was so awful, mostly, that it was always kind of marvelous to have something that you could play with a little sense of music.So we played it, went through part of a rehearsal; and at one point, Benny said ‘Hey Pops, lemme—lemme play that.’ I said , ‘Sure. Take it.’ I didn’t care; we were all getting union scale. So I handed him the part, and we went into it again. And the leader, I forget who it was, said, ‘Who’s playin’that?’ And I—leaned back. Benny said, ‘I am.’ ‘ Give it back to Artie.’
“Benny always remembered that; bothered him a lot…. He didn’t blame me; he just—knew he didn’t make it. That was galling. But he had a lousy sound, on an alto; just didn’t sound good. And I was a very good alto player.”
Though the Goodman band broke through first, primarily through their historic broadcasts from the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, the years 1935-39 saw Shaw’s new band join Goodman’s as one of the iconic groups of the era. Shaw’s breakthrough hit was a forgotten four year old Cole Porter tune, initially issued as the ‘b’ side of a single. The ‘hit’ side was intended to be Indian Love Call, complete with Goodman-styled jungle drums and ‘cheep cheep’ vocals interjected by the entire band. Instead Begin the Beguine became the hit. After several years of delivering his hit from every bandstand in America, Shaw got fed up, blasted his fan as ‘morons’ in an interview, and quit his band in the middle of an engagement at Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania. This period is the most demanding for author Nolan, as he must juggle Shaw’s attempts to become a serious writer (it seems he was always a serious reader), a farmer, and a film producer with the endless parade of Shaw’s wives. Despite not being a musician, Nolan does a fine job pointing out the peaks of Shaw’s musical endeavors. Signature hits like Frenesi and Stardust are examined both in terms of their popularity and their musical qualities. His 1945 band (which featured another Shaw walkout, as he sought to rescue his marriage to Ava Gardner) is assessed fairly, as is his 1949 unit, the most musically ambitious of all his large ensembles. That band, featuring soloists like saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and featuring arrangements from forward-hearing writers like Eddie Sauter and George Russell, went crashing to earth. Despite the robust postwar economy, returning servicemen put their nest eggs into new houses and cars, rather than nights at the local dance hall. Big bands and ballrooms went hand in hand into the sunset. By 1953 even the venerable Count Basie , whose big band roots went back to 1933, was fronting a sextet.
Nolan rightfully saves his most careful writing in describing Shaw’s final recording sessions with his small group, the Gramercy 5 (named after a New York phone exchange). After six weeks of paid rehearsals, the last of Shaw’s performing groups, featuring vibes, guitar, bass, drums and the remarkable Hank Jones on piano, (who has recently passed away, like Shaw, in his nineties), went into the studio and recorded some sides for the ages.
At four o’clock every morning after their last Embers set, the men went to Fine Sound at 711 Fifth Avenue, ordered coffee and Danish, and began to play while the tape rolled. Using a Buffet clarinet with a “more intimate, woody sound” than his usual Selmer, Shaw took care not to overblow the other instruments.” In fact, he wrote, “most of the playing I did with that group was so pianissimo that I had to hold the instrument very close to the mikeand keep the volume way down to where I used just enough breath to keep the reed vibrating… On ballads…where I was on the extreme range of not being heard at all, the result was a warm, highly emotional sound that I don’t think can be done much better on a clarinet.”
Nothing provoked that excellence more than a ballad. This Gramercy 5 did a number of them: an “Imagination” in which Shaw’s flowing ad libs seemed a metaphor of the title; a “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” during which Shaw poured forth a cascading fountain of gorgeous phrases; a confessional “I’ve Got A Crush on You,” in which Art’s fervent clarinet seemed to conjure a state of besotted infatuation; and two breathtaking versions of “Autumn Leaves,” each full of startling beauty.
These incredible recordings somehow managed not to be issued until 1992, and they are again, currently out of print, as is Shaw’s hand –picked boxed set Self Portrait which was nominated for two Grammies in 2003 and still managed to drift o/p. (For those diligent enough, the two sets Last Recordings Volumes 1& 2 can be tracked down online, 2 CDs each of fine jazz clarinet, and excellent chamber jazz).
The most challenging part of the book, for the author and the reader is sorting through Mr. Shaw’s eight wives. It is an intriguing list, containing as it does three prominent actresses (Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Evelyn Keyes), a once-famous popular writer (Kathleen Winsor of Forever Amber) and a composer’s daughter (Betty Kern, daughter of Jerome). Also appearing are flames Betty Grable (“too coarse” says Artie), Lena Horne, and Judy Garland, who was turned down when she begged to sing in Shaw’s band (too much of a belter, says Mr. Shaw). By his own admission, Shaw was afraid of women who matched his intellectual curiosity. But his unselfishness with a young Yvonne De Carlo (Shaw paid her salary for a month so she could quit dancing in a cheesy nightclub chorus and take some acting lessons), and his courage in hiring an unknown singer named Billie Holiday (who wasn’t allowed to sit on stage with the band when they performed in the south ) are stories not often told. Also not told is how Shaw rescued classical composer Arnold Schoenberg’s royalty payments from record company RCA Victor, (frozen with German assets following WW II) by advancing his own royalties from RCA as insurance.
More typical, for both Shaw’s legend and Nolan’s style, is his description of an incident during his marriage to the 19 year old Lana Turner. It comes complete with Nolan’s love of italics for emphasis, and the use of memoir quotes to tidy up the loose ends.
Art caused humiliating scenes, Lana said: demanding that she make dinner after her day at work, then in disgust throwing what she served on the carpet and saying, “Clean up that mess.”
“He told me.” Jan Curran said, “he came home one day, and there Lana was with her hair needing to be done; and he said to her, her hair looked terrible. And she said, ‘Well did you marry me for my looks ?’ And he said ‘Yes’ Well-cut her to the quick; there wasn’t anything about her he liked ’cept to look at her. That’s a mean thing to say to someone.”
It made art mad when life didn’t give him what he wanted, right now . Thwarted by a door, he would bust it down. I f he forgot his keys, he broke a window. Miffed by a marriage that didn’t work, he fell back on patterns learned from a mother who complained and manipulated a father who stepped on dreams.
“We lived in the little cottage of my fantasy,” Turner wrote, “but without two loving people inside it.”
“I saw marriage as a long cat-fight,” Shaw admitted late in life, “because that’s how I grew up.”
One might say it was Shaw who lived inside the cottage of his fantasy. After completely putting down his clarinet in the 1950’s, he drifted from writing (his The Trouble With Cinderella is a revealing look at celebrity) to movie producing with only his troubled muse to guide him. Two sons struggled to get to know him, with intermittent success only at the very end of Shaw’s life.
Despite the uncertain time sources of some of the quotes, Artie Shaw’s voice emerges from Tom Nolan’s book loudly and with engaging clarity. It’s the voice of a man who wanted more than anything to be a writer. The only published results were one mid-life memoir and two collections of short stories. The massive three volume novel he wanted to write about the education of a musician was never organized into a final work.
He just lived it instead. And in reading Three Chords for Beauty, you learn how selfishness, candor, and bristling talent can seethe inside an individual for ninety four years. It is quite a journey.
Who, indeed, is Artie Shaw ?
Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.