By Courtney Suciu
Controversial winner of the 2019 Academy Award for Best Picture, Green Book tells the tale of real-life piano virtuoso Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor) and the challenges he faced during a tour in the racially segregated American South of the early 1960s.
Admirers of Green Book praise it as a charming “Odd Couple” buddy flick, largely due to the chemistry between Ali and Viggo Mortenson, who plays Tony Lip, hired as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard.
While the film’s warm message of friendship prevailing over racial tensions appeals to audiences in our own fraught times, some critics find fault with the its soft, sugar-coated approach to the Jim Crow-era chapter in American history.
Then there is the controversy around its portrayal of Shirley, whose alienation from his family and Black culture are critical to the film’s characterization. As journalist Najja Parker pointed out in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution1, Shirley’s family called the depiction “a symphony of lies.”
Which made us wonder: who was the real Don Shirley, and what is his cultural legacy?
Parker’s recent biographical sketch provides a thoughtful overview of Shirley’s life and career. The pianist, born January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida to Jamaican immigrants, “learned the piano at 2 and picked up the organ at 3, playing the latter at his local church where his father served as an Episcopal minister.”
At age 9, Parker continued, Shirley traveled to “the Soviet Union to study theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. And at 18, he made his concert debut with the Boston Pops Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat.” However, a few years later, Shirley’s mentor discouraged him from pursuing a career in classical music because of his skin color.
“But Shirley persisted,” Parker noted. “He developed his own unique genre by fusing blues, spirituals, show tunes and popular music into his compositions.”
Additionally, Parker revealed, somewhat in contrast to the depiction of Shirley in Green Book, he also participated in the civil rights movement:
The composer, who often had to go through the back door of nightclubs and use closets for dressing rooms at his own shows, befriended activists, including Nina Simone and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was present for the march in Selma in 1965, too.
From Shirley’s 2013 obituary in The New York Times2, more details of his personal life are discovered – we learned that he was once married and divorced, and his survivors included a brother, Maurice, and a half-sister, Edwina Shirley Nalchawee.
A glimpse of the unique texture of his extraordinary musicianship emerged as well:
Mr. Shirley's music exhibited a vast musical erudition. He was drawn to indigenous American forms, by which he meant the blues, the work song, the Negro spiritual and the show tune, and his compositions referred to those forms. He was not inclined to improvise and disliked being referred to as a jazz musician…His playing was virtuosic and lush, and in performance he often impressed critics with both his sound and invention.
But, while these biographical portraits are informative, they don’t give us an intimate sense of Shirley’s personality or motivations; and they only allude to rather than illuminate impressions fans and critics had of the artist, and those the artist had of himself.
For a deeper, more dynamic understanding of the enigmatic Shirley, we must look at his career as it was unfolding, by those who witnessed it unfold.
Shirley’s popularity hit its height mid-century and the abundant newspaper coverage of his life and work included a variety of gossip and puff pieces about the artist.
The Chicago Defender featured Shirley extensively, beginning with his 1954 regional concert debut, “one of the most glittering and glamorous social events of the season,”3 where “the young artist…literally held his audience spellbound” with a mix of classical, contemporary and popular musical selections. Among the “lavishly furred and stunningly gowned boxholders and their meticulously groomed escorts,” the audience included “the proudest concert-goers”: several members of Shirley’s family.
But in contrast to Shirley’s image as something of an elitist who scorned the moniker of “jazz musician,” the newspaper included a brief the following year about his gig with iconic trumpeter and composer Louis Armstrong, where the duo “packe[ed] them in” at the “fabulous Basin Street,”4 a legendary New York City jazz club.
During this same period, the publication ran an interview with “Mrs. Don Shirley, wife of the brilliant pianist organist”5 who was “charmed with his intelligence and captivated by his amazing aesthetic curiosity and prowess.” She told the reporter, “There’s never a dull moment whenever an association involves Donald.”
However, it’s important to note that Shirley wasn’t only a musical virtuoso – he was human, too, and newspaper accounts from this era shed light on his personal troubles and temperament. A short piece from 1957, also published in the Defender6, revealed his detention by the sheriff’s office for delinquent payment of his divorce settlement.
Around this time, he also gained a reputation for being a touchy performer. “Put Don Shirley on record as the most arrogant performer of the year,”7 Will Leonard wrote in the “On the Town Column” for the Chicago Daily Tribune7 in 1961.
Claiming that Shirley brought a police whistle with him on stage to get the attention of noisy or inattentive audience members, Leonard called the performer “emotionally insecure and socially offensive” before adding: “No doubt about it, he is a musician, and his trio, with the unorthodox grouping of piano, bass and cello, is far more interesting than the average jazz threesome.”
Over the next couple of decades, Shirley’s mainstream popularity waned, but his fanbase, though smaller, seemed more passionate and concentrated on his artistry. There were fewer gossipy newspaper bits appearing about him; they were replaced with occasional pieces that were more thoughtful and analytical. Most journalistic coverage focused on critical reviews which often reflected a deep emotional response to Shirley’s musical cunning and creativity.
One of the most moving write-ups of the Don Shirley Trio came from Barry Weekes of the Oakland Post8 who observed audience members “buzzing” with comments like “he can do anything, play anything, look at his left hand,” and "he's a genius.” Weekes also noted, “I think Don Shirley must have enrolled in a ballet culture class, man that stride after a few pieces was exquisite, as if he was carrying a book on his head. Carry on, Don Shirley, with your bad self.”
According to Weekes, a highlight of the night was the group’s exquisite rendition of a song Weekes confessed was one of his favorites: “Talk about being sensitive – when Don Shirley then played ‘Feelings,’ with Juri Taht, bowing softly on cello and Kenneth Fricker, picking away on the bass - I quietly said to myself 'have mercy.'”
A similarly personal commentary came from Raoul Abdul of the New York New Amsterdam News9 in a 1982 review. For Abdul, part of Shirley’s increasing obscurity came from challenges in categorizing the musician, which meant he was omitted from biographical anthologies of jazz and Black classical artists. But it was this defiance of categorization that dazzled not only Abdul, but as the writer pointed out, the likes of Igor Stravinsky, who once said Shirley’s “virtuosity is worthy of the Gods.”
That same year, Shirley gave a rare, intimate interview with C. Gerald Fraser of The New York Times10 in which he spoke candidly about his frustrations as a Black artist who couldn’t easily be pigeonholed and was frequently misunderstood as a result.
“Don Shirley expounds,” Fraser wrote in a description of their conversation. “His large round eyes bulge out of their sockets. There is passion, fury, contradiction and anguish. He is a concert pianist who resents the fact that most of his prominence in this city is due to nightclub engagements.”
Shirley explained the contrast of being a concert pianist and a nightclub entertainer, how that related to racial discrimination in the music he’d been allowed to perform, and his resentment of being labeled a jazz musician:
I established the first piano listening room in New York City. This is how I got branded as a jazz person. They wouldn't let me play on the concert stage…The musicians' union, right this minute, does not regard jazz as art, they regard it as labor. I even have to get a new union card. I don’t have to worry about this kind of mess when I'm on the concert stage, but the moment I go into a club I have to have all this stuff - a cabaret license and all that mess. No concert artist in the world has to have that.
He also disapproved of the way jazz performers conducted themselves on stage, and resisted being associated with such behavior. He complained that jazz performers ''smoke while they're playing, and they'll put the glass of whisky on the piano, and then they'll get mad when they're not respected like [classical pianist] Arthur Rubinstein.”
''I am not an entertainer,” Shirley continued, explaining his offense at the over-casual, over-familiarity which came with that label and seemed to signify to him a lack of reverence for his artform and accomplishments. “I don’t want anybody to know me well enough to slap me on the back and say 'Hey, baby,’” he told Fraser.
“The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that's all I have ever tried to do.''
For further research
Perhaps the best way to know and understand the “real” Don Shirley is through the music. The Music and Dance Online database includes some of his best known and more obscure recordings, such as:
Don Shirley [Streaming Audio]. (2011). Unique Jazz. (2011).
Don Shirley's Best [Streaming Audio]. (2010). Cadence Records. (2010).
Piano Artistry [Streaming Audio]. (2014). Vintage Music. (2014).
Discover source material essential to the study of American history and African-American culture, history, politics, and the arts. Examine major movements from the Harlem Renaissance to Civil Rights, and explore everyday life as written in the Chicago Defender, The Baltimore Afro-American, New York Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, Los Angeles Sentinel, Atlanta Daily World, The Norfolk Journal and Guide, The Philadelphia Tribune, and Cleveland Call and Post.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu