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

Be it with friends, lovers, wives or bands, Artie Shaw was a serial deserter. So reveals biographer Tom Nolan in his breezily written yet painstakingly detailed Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake. Diggers in search of celebrity dirt will surely be disappointed that Nolan devotes exponentially more space to Shaw’s musical craftsmanship and his work with everyone from Bix Beiderbecke to Charlie Parker than he does to his personal liaisons with Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and a bevy of other marquee beauties.

But Nolan has the proportions precisely right, for Shaw cared exceedingly more about his music than he did about any of his eight wives, either of his sons or the vast majority of his pals and supporters. That Shaw was a self-taught musical genius is beyond debate. As Nolan thoroughly reveals, there is no shortage of fans, most culled from the upper echelons of jazz players and chroniclers, eager to extol Shaw’s brilliance. Since Shaw chose to pack up his clarinet in the early 1950s, five decades before his death at age 92, the bulk of the book focuses on the first half of his life. The remainder serves primarily to reveal the emergence of Shaw the misanthrope, his ego fully inflated, his love for no one but himself wholly realized.

The book’s title is taken from Shaw’s homespun philosophy that the ideal equation for professional satisfaction was three chords for beauty’s sake, and another to pay the rent. One wonders, at the close of Nolan’s estimably candid portrait, how much Shaw’s vibrant but insular life would have been enriched if he’d added a fifth chord for humanity and perhaps a stray note or two for humility.