Who Was Don Shirley? ‘Green Book’ Tries to Solve the Mystery
Nov. 2, 2018
Mahershala Ali, right, portraying the virtuoso pianist Donald Shirley in “Green Book.”Patti Perret/Universal Pictures, Participant, DreamWorks
One of the moments in “Green Book” that reveals the most about Donald Shirley — a dandified, erudite piano virtuoso whose career was impeded by racial discrimination — doesn’t have anything to do with music, or much to do with race.
This movie, to be released on Nov. 21, tells the unlikely but basically true story of the friendship between Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a working-class Italian-American from the Bronx who was hired to chauffeur the New York musician on a 1962 tour of the Jim Crow South. As Tony drafts a letter to his wife one afternoon, Shirley throws him a scornful glance. “It looks more like a piecemeal ransom note,” Shirley says, telling Tony to transcribe what he’s about to dictate. Then Shirley’s tone turns around. He unfurls a mellifluous, heartfelt profession of love, which Tony scribbles down ravenously, capping it with his own signature.
Shirley’s fine with that. But when Tony adds his typical ending — “P.S., kiss the kids” — Shirley looks stricken. “That’s like clanging a cowbell at the end of Shostakovich’s Seventh!” he says, trying to guard his work.
“Green Book” is not a biopic, but throughout the film, Tony wrestles with the question of who exactly Shirley is. A hint of an answer emerges in that moment: an artist of extravagant gifts, quiet bitterness and, when given the means to express it, generous romanticism.
A preview of the movie.Oct. 29, 2018Patti Perret/ Universal Pictures
Shirley grew up in Pensacola, Fla. (not Kingston, Jamaica, as promoters insisted), in a well-off family, his father an Episcopal minister and his mother a teacher. From the start, he was a prodigy and fully expected to ascend to the concert stage as a classical pianist. But some doors remained closed to an African-American performer, even in the North, and his career turned out differently. Today, Shirley, who died at 86 in 2013, appears relegated to the background of American musical history.
This musician — who had never been to graduate school but was known to audiences and friends as “Dr. Shirley” anyway, possibly a reference to his two honorary degrees — debuted on the concert stage at 18, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat with the Boston Pops. But a few years later, the impresario Sol Hurok, who, paradoxically, had helped Marian Anderson break the color line as an operatic diva, told him that a black pianist wouldn’t be accepted in the United States, and pushed him to adopt a pop repertoire.
Shirley did manage to perform as a soloist with symphonies in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere. But he took Hurok’s advice, and embarked on a career that stayed largely stuck in the lukewarm waters separating jazz, cabaret, spirituals and chamber music.
Even Shirley’s pop-oriented music was a technical marvel: He braided bits of classical études into Tin Pan Alley songs, orchestrating it all for an atypical trio of piano, cello and bass. His “I Can’t Get Started” was neatly woven with snippets from Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. He sprinkled quotations from Ravel’s “Ondine” into “Blue Moon.”
But it would be too simple to suggest that his solitary artistic ambition was to sneak into classical music. He chose his instrumentation, he said, to emulate the sound of the organ he had grown up hearing in church. And he argued for the importance of establishing an American concert canon, spanning African-American work songs, spirituals, the blues and Broadway tunes.
The young pianist Kris Bowers composed the score to “Green Book” and rerecorded Shirley’s arrangements for the soundtrack. Unsurprisingly, he had never heard Shirley’s music before, but speaking about it now, he borders on reverence. “‘Lullaby of Birdland’ was one of the first ones that I knew I wanted to include, because he starts off quoting a couple of classical pieces, and then when he goes into the song, it’s almost like a false start, because he uses the melody as the beginning of a fugue,” Bowers said in an interview. “He’s doing a proper fugue, exposing the subject, et cetera, within a jazz context. I listened to that and said, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anybody do that before.’”
By the early 1960s, Shirley was recording regularly for Cadence Records and was represented by Columbia Artists management (whose roster included Igor Stravinsky, Paul Robeson and Aaron Copland). This helped him become a fixture of New York cabarets like the Cookery, though he despised playing in clubs, where he rarely felt the audiences respected his music enough. Columbia also booked the tour depicted in “Green Book.”
Six years earlier, Nat King Cole had been brutally assaulted onstage in Birmingham, Ala., and swore he would never return to the segregated South. The region remained dangerous for black travelers into the 1960s (the movie title refers to a guide, similar to one that AAA might have issued, to help them find safe passage), but Shirley undertook his tour of whites-only theaters and parlor venues out of civic obligation — and stubbornness. He refused to be told, yet again, what he could play where.
In “Green Book,” the tour begins at Shirley’s resplendent apartment in the artists’ units above Carnegie Hall, where he lived for more than 50 years. You can imagine that he enjoyed the real estate but also felt trapped in a kind of bell tower, overhearing the symphonies that he would rather have been performing. Yet Shirley did have illustrious moments on Carnegie’s stage. He played concerts with his trio there once a year. And he held the piano chair during the Carnegie Hall debut of Duke Ellington’s “New World a-Comin’,” in 1955, playing big, flourishing chordsduring his cadenzas and strutting proudly in the left hand under the combined jazz ensemble and symphony orchestra.
Donald Shirley at his home above Carnegie Hall in 1979.Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
In 1974, the year Ellington died, Shirley presented an orchestral homage of his own, “Divertimento for Duke by Don,” with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra of Ontario, Canada.
“Eventually, he kind of made it work, but not exactly the way he planned,” Michiel Kappeyne van de Coppello, a longtime friend who studied piano with Shirley, said in an interview. “He had anticipated he would be a concert pianist from the get-go. But he was forced to make this very long detour, and actually make up his own genre, to essentially find his way back to the concert stage.”
The history of American music is littered with stories like Shirley’s. The 2015 documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” showed that Nina Simone, with a musical background generally resembling Shirley’s, felt deeply wounded after being denied the opportunity to become a classical concert pianist.
Ali said he was attracted to the role of Shirley specifically because it presented an opportunity that has historically been rare for black actors: to portray a complex, authoritative character coming from well outside central casting.
“That’s still a relevant issue for so many artists, especially artists of color, who until recently have been seen in a very limited way,” he said. “It’s been a tough journey to get to that place where you’re being cast in something that is totally fleshed out, as someone who is truly human on the page. I’ve had the experience where I was always trying to make the most of what I was given.”