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BOOK REVIEWS

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

Tom Nolan

W.W.Norton $29.95

ISBN 978-0-393-06201-4

Three Chords for Beauty's Sake

Art Shaw was his first professional name.  When he hit it big in 1938 a friend dubbed him Sid Shawfellow. Tom Nolan's affectionate and readable book is largely based on interviews with the man we now remember as Artie Shaw.

Joanne Lupton met Shaw when Artie was sixty-one, she twenty-seven. Shaw was living at West 58th Street, behind Central Park South. "The man was so filled with life, he was incredible to be with," she said. Yet Lupton observed at first hand that Shaw was protecting an image of himself. "So if it was a public place, you wouldn't see him make a casual remark. If it was at home, if people were there interviewing him, it was still his public space; he would always be thinking, 'How's this going to look in history?'

Larry Rose, his personal assistant for eleven years, said that Shaw was not an easy man for whom to work. "He was really a nice guy," Rose said. "I think he was just lonely. He would get angry, and could be insulting, but he was never malicious.  Trying to explain anything related to a computer was a Herculean task. I can't begin to find the words to describe how difficult it was.  I'm trying with all the patience I can muster, to help Artie understand how this device works. We're probably on the tenth attempt, of me going back to square one, and he having to try it himself." Eventually, Rose suggested that they changed the subject, and did something else. Thus, they survived.

Rose's testimony gives us alternative view of Shaw's much discussed high-intelligence, his reputation as a brilliant polymath and autodidact. As for Shaw's intense desire to be a writer, which was behind his early defection from music, Joanne Lupton's testimony is again revealing, recounting how Shaw would go to his room to write, day after day. "He would go over it and over it," she said. "I had a hard time reading his books, actually, because they were so unemotional, to me. So literate in choosing the words carefully, but not painting the pictures of the people the way they really were." In her opinion, Shaw's books were not going to go anywhere.

Movie producer Elliott Kastner said: "He was very arrogant and offensive. But I loved him." Ted Hallock, broadcaster, observed at age 77 that Shaw's ego edge was always there, ensuring that you knew who was in charge, "With one intellectual hand behind him he was brushing his trail to make sure there are no footprints."

"Artie was probably the most egocentric person I have ever known," his son Jonathan said. "Artie was defeated by his intelligence. Artie didn't love anything or anybody, because he didn't have that in his character. It was not his fault."

Shaw was still driving his Prius around California at the age of ninety. Yet by 2004 he was blind. Diabetes caused the macular degeneration that resulted in his eyesight failing. As Shaw was dying, his caregiver Pattie Porter was changing Shaw's bedclothes. She leaned down to ask if he was comfortable. "I make a living," he said.

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal magazine, September 2010. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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