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 his horrific 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.