Three Chords for Beauty's Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw

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Overview

For his centennial, an indispensable biography of Artie Shaw, the legendary big-band leader, virtuoso clarinetist, and renegade in music and romance.
During America’s Swing Era, no musician was more successful or controversial than Artie Shaw: the charismatic and opinionated clarinetist-bandleader whose dozens of hits became anthems for “the greatest generation.” But some of his most beautiful recordings were not issued until decades after he’d left the scene. He broke racial ...

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Overview

For his centennial, an indispensable biography of Artie Shaw, the legendary big-band leader, virtuoso clarinetist, and renegade in music and romance.
During America’s Swing Era, no musician was more successful or controversial than Artie Shaw: the charismatic and opinionated clarinetist-bandleader whose dozens of hits became anthems for “the greatest generation.” But some of his most beautiful recordings were not issued until decades after he’d left the scene. He broke racial barriers by hiring African American musicians. His frequent “retirements” earned him a reputation as the Hamlet of jazz. And he quit playing for good at the height of his powers. The handsome Shaw had seven wives (including Lana Turner and Ava Gardner). Inveterate reader and author of three books, he befriended the best-known writers of his time.
Tom Nolan, who interviewed Shaw between 1990 and his death in 2004 and spoke with one hundred of his colleagues and contemporaries, captures Shaw and his era with candor and sympathy, bringing the master to vivid life and restoring him to his rightful place in jazz history.

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Editorial Reviews

Nat Hentoff
“[A]t last, the lively, continually imaginative life of the most creative clarinetist in jazz history and an orchestra leader who not only produced hits but also new dimensions of this music.”
Kevin Starr
“In this riveting biography, Tom Nolan recovers the genius, the legend, the ego and blocked emotions of an enigmatic American icon.”
Ted Gioia - San Francisco Chronicle
“[F]ollows Shaw’s various zigzags with aplomb, and Nolan shifts gears adeptly in pursuit of his subject. The book is well paced and never lags, while the author addresses everything from litigation to personal rivalries with fairness and a deft touch.”
David Gates - The New York Times Book Review
“Absorbing… fascinating.”
Booklist
“Enthralling… [Nolan] gives the satisfactions of a true rags-to-riches story, complete with the spice of glamorous marriages and flings (with Lee Wiley, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, etc.), and plausibly accounts for Shaw’s huge character faults without obscuring his charm and prodigious talent.”
Gary Giddins
“Tom Nolan has a great story to tell and he knows precisely how to tell it, fast and deadpan, abetted by the irascible Shaw himself—a serial husband, detached father, and full time autodidact who may have been the finest clarinet virtuoso of all time.”
Daniel Akst - Wall Street Journal
“[C]ompulsively readable.”
Library Journal
Every great artist deserves a great biography, and Swing Era bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw finally has one. Previous books focused mainly on his music, but that represents only his public identity. One of the most interesting aspects of Shaw's life was that while his fame came from the music he made, his personal happiness did not. Most musicians play until the gigs dry up or their life ends, but Shaw stepped away at the height of his powers, and Nolan (Ross MacDonald: A Biography) reveals many of the reasons for this. Conducting interviews with friends, colleagues, and the man himself, Nolan examines the full breadth of Shaw's life. VERDICT Considering Shaw's early literary desires, his many marriages, and the intellectual intensity that led him to become one of the most famous or infamous figures in jazz, Nolan has crafted a well-written, highly entertaining, and informative biography. [A "Book Cheer" pick; see the 2/4/10 edition of our enewsletter BookSmack!—Ed.]—Peter Thornell, Hingham P.L., MA
David Gates
Three Chords for Beauty's Sake is as grimly fascinating as any story of a young flameout dying in the gutter.
—The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Nolan (Ross Macdonald: A Biography, 1999) reconsiders the swing clarinetist-bandleader in a beautifully measured, unforgiving account. Born Avraham Arshawsky to Jewish immigrant parents, Artie Shaw (1910-2004) taught himself saxophone and clarinet as a boy, dropping out of school at age 15 to pursue music professionally. After apprenticeship with pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith in Harlem's clubs, network radio work and leadership of a failed big band with strings, Shaw rocketed to the top in 1938 with his version of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." That hit and others-"Frenesi," "Star Dust"-established him as chief rival to "King of Swing" Benny Goodman. Shaw also courageously broke the Swing Era's rigid race barriers by featuring vocalist Billie Holiday and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. However, the ambivalent bandleader almost immediately began to flee the limelight. He publicly condemned his fans as "morons" and broke up his band at the height of its wild popularity in the first of several professional withdrawals. His incident-rich life encompassed eight marriages-his wives included Hollywood goddesses Lana Turner and Ava Gardner-and many affairs, a wartime tour leading a Navy band in Pacific hot spots and an appearance before HUAC during the Red Scare. He abandoned playing for good in 1954, and lived another 50 years, concentrating mainly on writing. Nolan, who interviewed Shaw and many of his band mates and intimates, appraises his difficult subject with a cool eye. His briskly written work lauds the musician's instrumental virtuosity and ambitious conceptions, but the author cuts Shaw no slack about his many personal failings-his arrogance, anger, selfishness, egocentricity and hishorrific relationships with parents, wives and children. It's a multidimensional portrait of a brilliant yet self-absorbed autodidact who could never find happiness or satisfaction, even when his greatest fantasies of fame and success were realized. An exemplary work of jazz biography.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393062014
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/3/2010
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 707,303
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Nolan, the author of the critically acclaimed and Edgar Award–nominated Ross Macdonald: A Biography, is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Leisure & Arts page. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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