It was easier to be a biographer in the nineteenth century. The job description was clear: write a lengthy volume chronicling an honored subject from birth to death. Admire the accomplishments; ignore the failings. Say little of the great man’s private life, and make whatever information you present fit the admiring portrait. Burnish the publish ideal of the hero.
But the twentieth century brought us pathobiography, with the subject anatomized (sometimes gleefully) as a corpse to be dissected. And many biographies now fixate on the subject’s offensive behavior rather than in his work. In some books the palpable rancor of the biographer becomes the focal point.
Artie Shaw, who would have been a hundred this year, would seem a spectacularly difficult subject for a biography. For one thing, Shaw’s music was beautifully analyzed and documented by Vladimir Simosko in 2000. Shaw has been pictured as an unimaginably boorish husband (or ex-husband) by his ex-wives. His last recordings were made more than fifty years ago, even though he lived on until the very end of 2004.
But biographer Tom Nolan proves himself valiantly up to the task in THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE: THE LIFE OF ARTIE SHAW (Norton, 2010). It’s not simply the first-hand research, the careful investigation of the facts, the easy, approachable prose style. Throughout the book, Nolan understands the scope and idiosyncratic shapes of Shaw’s life and art.
But before we get into serious issues, I must say that a biography of Shaw (who knew many people and slept with many others) should also have some good gossip. Nolan offers some wonderful anecdotes:
Billie Holiday advising a seven or eight-year old boy on proper deportment: “You better be good– or I’m gonna put a stamp on your forehead and mail you away!” (The eight-year old boy took her very seriously and grew up to be a judge.)
Nolan lets us know Shaw’s recollection of what it was like to be in bed next to the gorgeous Lee Wiley in 1938: “In bed, she would say things like, ‘You are lying next to the greatest ass in New York.'”
Then there’s the tale of Judy Garland’s early and continuing love of Shaw.
But these are sidelights to the fascinating story of Shaw’s rise from obscurity to international success, his digust with that success, and his rejection of it — not once, but several times. Although Nolan has left the musical and musicological analysis of Shaw’s playing and his overall artistic conception to others, what comes through is a full portrait of an artist — not simply a player, an improviser, a bandleader — but someone deeply concerned with the music he was making and might make. Music, mind you — not just pop hits, not simply playing a good solo or having a successful band, but music.
But what also comes through is that Shaw, perhaps because of the focused self-absorption needed for this quest, was a seriously unpleasant person. Erudite, brilliant, witty, sophisticated, and all that. But.
Some will say that arists can be forgiven nearly everything because of what they give us, and that has a certain validity. But Shaw seems time and again so obsessed with his own self-justifying, harsh truth-telling that it’s hard to tell where accuracy stops and cruelty begins. As much as I admire Shaw’s music and his integrity, I find myself recoiling from the man who characterized Johnny Mercer as having “a little faggotry in him,” to say nothing of the saga of Shaw’s failed marriages. Nolan is fair and balanced, not taking the testimony of ex-wives and lovers at face value . . . but Shaw, in the end, comes across as an ungenerous narcissist.
Here, for instance, is his portrait of Billie Holiday later in life: “Then she got hooked — she went to jail — all that shit. I went to visit her, she was no longer the girl I knew. She was no longer — anybody. She was a — whiner. She had some guy, livin’ off her and — it was no fun. It was not fun being with her. So it goes.”
But finding Shaw repellent did not make me put the book down. In fact, I continued to read with terrible fascination: “What awful thing will he do or say next?” It is a real tribute to Nolan’s ability as a writer and shaper of narrative that the reader is able to admire and dislike Shaw at once. Nolan does not ignore Shaw’s failings, but he doesn’t gloat. The portrait is thorough, providing a deep study of a man both complicated and coarse, creating beauty through his clarinet and creating turmoil through his actions.
Even if you have only the vaguest idea of Artie Shaw, this biography is a fascinating study of the difficult relations between the artist and the audience, between the creative mind and the demands of the marketplace.
And it sent me back to listen to Shaw’s music, which is, after all, what he should be remembered for. To read a piece by Nolan about Artie Shaw, here’s an article about the recording “Summit Ridge Drive” published in the January 8, 2010 Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704398304574598343861876358.html