End the Beguine

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MUSIC JUNE 4, 2010

End the Beguine

Three Chords for Beauty's Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw
by Tom Nolan
W.W. Norton & Company, 430 pp., $29.95

Artie Shaw, who is thought of as a clarinetist from the big-band era when he is given thought at all, spent far more of his long life writing prose than making music, and it is clear from his output as a writer of no distinction that he was a musician of genius. He wrote thousands of pages of fiction and veiled reminiscence—a rambling quasi-memoir published in 1952 as The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity; three novellas about sour relationships issued together in 1965 as I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!; a collection of situational short stories, The Best of Intentions and Other Stories, released in 1989; and an autobiographical novel of more than a thousand pages, The Education of Albie Snow, which Shaw amassed over several decades and never got published. Nearly all of Shaw's published writing—and I can report without pride that I have read it all—is amateurish, blabby, and shallow. It feels tossed off, though not in the spirit of unaffected spontaneity inherent to jazz. Its spirit, rather, is the diffident vanity of boorish party chat. Shaw's writing is the product of a mind with an all-absorbing interest in—and, worse, a boundless faith in—itself.

However misguided that faith was, it was hardly unfounded. Before he took up writing full-time, Shaw had tried something he cared much less about—clarinet playing; and, with little apparent exertion, he rose phenomenally fast to the top of that field to become one of the most celebrated musicians of the day. As a soloist in his own orchestra during the swing craze, as well as in smaller groups that he led on and off until the early 1950s, Shaw earned his lasting reputation for playing with exquisite sensitivity and lyricism. "It isn't how many notes, or how good your playing is—nothin' to do with that. [It's] the sound of the horn—what you do with the instrument," he is quoted as saying in the first major life of Shaw, written by the veteran biographer and music writer Tom Nolan and published this spring to mark the centennial of Shaw's birth. As Shaw is also widely quoted as saying, with characteristic mordancy, "Benny Goodman plays the clarinet. I play music."

No work I know exemplifies the Foucauldian diremption of art from authorship like the big-band music of Artie Shaw. It is simply impossible to reconcile the delicacy and beauty of Shaw's playing on recordings such as "Begin the Beguine" and "Frenesi" with the man behind the clarinet, who, by all accounts (and not only those of his eight wives), was a cheerless, spiteful, vicious, surly asshole. I had one brief phone conversation with him myself, in the early '90s, when I was researching a biography of Billy Strayhorn, and it was one phone conversation too many. "Strayhorn was alright, for a fairy," Shaw told me in what constituted, for him, fawning praise.

American music suffered a genuine loss when, in 1954, he put down his clarinet for good, leaving us only Artie Shaw the man and the writer. He gave as his reasons the low standards of the popular-music business and the volatility of the fans whom he held in contempt. "I hate the music business," he explained to the New York Post. "I'm not interested in giving the public what they want...They aren't listening. Only gawking. My friends, my advisors tell me that I'm a damned fool. 'Look here,' they shout at me, 'you can't do that. These people made you.' You want to know my answer? I tell them if I was made by a bunch of morons, that's just too bad." In his cynicism about commercial music and his fear of the effects of the celebrity culture, Shaw now looks extraordinarily prescient.

Swing was dying anyway when he got out. In fact, the timing of Shaw's departure from the music business several years after his kind of music had begun to be replaced by other styles—bebop, cool jazz, and the jump blues that led to rock and roll—argues against Shaw's exit alibi. With the beguine he had begun already over, his retirement was perhaps less a retreat from fame than a refusal to be denied that fame.

While Nolan's book provides details of Shaw's career available nowhere else, it fails to take on the discomforting elements of Shaw's make-up—particularly the self-loathing that filled the outline of his very confused identity. As Shaw wrote in The Trouble with Cinderella:

I know any number of Jewish people who...try to ignore [anti-Semitism] by some variation on the I'm-a-Jew-and-proud-of-it theme; but that won't work for me. There is no more sense in that than there is in being proud of being blonde or brunette, tall or short, blue-eyed or brown-eyed. All anyone can do about this whole ridiculous primitive manner of categorizing people into in-groups and out-groups is to try to be as adult as possible about it. Certainly there is nothing wrong with the honest admission that it would be far more convenient to be a member of the in-group, if such a thing as choice were possible, which in this instance it obviously is not.

The trouble with Cinderella, according to Shaw, was that she lived in a fairy tale. But she never knew that, so that was not really her problem. Cinderella's trouble was the same as Artie Shaw's: she couldn’t bear being who she was.

David Hajdu is the music critic of The New Republic.

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