Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Art & Culture: Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw by Tom Nolan

When Artie Shaw died in 2004 at the age of 94, I was among those surprised that he was still alive: he had quit performing half a century before. “I did all you can do with a clarinet,” Shaw said about his early retirement. “Any more would have been less.”

Tom Nolan’s account of Shaw’s life in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake (W.W. Norton) is both respectful and in-depth. Author and journalist Nolan interviewed Shaw many times while he was alive and since then, “spoke with a hundred other individuals willing to share memories and insights regarding one of the greatest popular artists of the twentieth century.”

Nolan takes us through Shaw’s life in chronological fashion, including a string of ill-fated marriages. There were eight wives in all, including actresses Lana Turner, Doris Dowling, Ava Gardner and his widow, Evelyn Keyes and Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber.

It is not the many failed marriages, however, that Nolan uses most to transport us. That place is reserved by art in various forms and the way it manifested in Shaw’s life. Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake is a portrait of the King of Swing, sure. More than that, though, it is a jazz biography and a celebration of “America’s indigenous artform.”

While it’s clear Nolan held Shaw in considerable regard, his tone in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake never loses its journalistic clarity and distance. “I have written this biography with care, respect, and affection,” Nolan writes in his Preface. “Artie Shaw was a man who thrilled millions, but whose own most consistent pleasure seemed to be come from sitting alone with a book.”

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