My exposure to swing jazz is limited to the phase I went through in high school of acquiring discount CDs of mostly white band leaders and their safest, poppiest hits badly converted from the original analog recordings to cheap digital ones after seeing Swing Kids and developing rotating crushes on Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale. (Also, would you believe this is little Willi nowadays?) Ken Burns tells me that Artie Shaw is “possibly the finest technical clarinet player in all of jazz.” Artie Shaw tells Ken Burns that he wasn’t wild about the idea of being the best anything anywhere. “Success is a bigger problem than failure. It’s an opium; you get very confused. Things happen that you have no preparation for.”
By the time he was in his mid-20s, Shaw had rotated through more than a handful of bands. He found that wherever he went and no matter the ensemble he put together, his talent and need to continually develop it would leave him bored and dangerously close to resentment of his fellow bandmates within just a few months. After only a few years of relative success, he “retired” from music, seeking the fulfillment he could never find in playing the same boring songs to the same predictable crowds every night.
While in this self-imposed exile, Shaw went back to school, farmed a bit, sorta, and wrote. Through a friendship developed with Sinclair Lewis over the years, he learned something about the development of genius, as applied to writing, that he never could have learned in music on account of the ease with which it came to him: just keep working on it. Like Hemingway and so many others, Lewis told Shaw that the trick to writing good books was to simply write. Write a lot, throw out most of it, improve what you’ve got left, and then do that a couple hundred thousand more times, until you have something genuinely good. Shaw took that advice to heart, and during some of his “retirements” from music over the years, Shaw wrote a number of books.
I picked up I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!, which is a trio of “variations” on the theme of love and heartbreak. It is a thin volume which contains three novellas, if you’re feeling fancy, or three long-ish short stories if you’re not. One is a ripped-from-the-headlines account of how a robbery-gone-good ruined a marriage because the husband has a curious and forgiving nature while his wife is an unyielding law-and-order type whose status as villain is cemented by the fact that she has the temerity to not be dumb while also being beautiful. The third story is a fictionalized account of how his bitch of an ex-wife took all his money in their divorce. I don’t remember what the second story is about, and I’m too uninterested to look it up.
Sadly, but hardly surprisingly, Shaw is misogynist right out of the mold of the stereotypical sexism of the mid-20th century. It would be funny if it weren’t so exhausting. He is also a terrible writer. His stories mostly feel like low-rent Ian Fleming, and if you’ve ever read any of his drivel, you’ll understand what I mean.
Like Bond novels, but to a greater degree, Shaw’s plots’ forward motion comes entirely through dialogue. What character development exists is done through straight exposition. As it turns out, this is an extremely tedious way to tell a story. I am sorry that Shaw didn’t find the satisfaction he wanted through music, and I am also sorry that as a result he inflicted these stories on the reading public.
If you catch a wild hair and somehow get the urge to read Shaw’s work, I’d advise you to simply listen to his music instead. And by “listen to Artie Shaw,” I actually mean listen to Count Basie, whose work is consistently interesting.