Op 21 december 2021 heb ik naar “The green book” gekeken, een film van Peter Farrelly uit 2018, gebaseerd op een fragment uit het leven van de zwarte pianist Don Shirley (gespeeld door Mahershala Ali) en zijn chauffeur/lijfwacht Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). Een uitstekende film overigens, maar ik was vooral benieuwd om wat meer te weten te komen over die pianist, die vandaag precies tien jaar geleden is gestorven (foto img.huffingtonpost.com via Wikipedia).

Donald Walbridge Shirley was born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida, to Jamaican immigrants, Stella Gertrude (1903–1936), a teacher, and Edwin S. Shirley (1885–1982), an Episcopal priest. His birthplace was sometimes incorrectly given as Kingston, Jamaica, because his label advertised him as being Jamaican-born. Shirley started to learn piano when he was two years old. By age three, he was playing the organ.

He briefly enrolled at Virginia State University and Prairie View College, then studied with Conrad Bernier and Thaddeus Jones at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he received his bachelor’s degree in music in 1953. He was known as “Dr. Shirley” for his two honorary doctorates.

According to some sources (including the movie), Shirley traveled to the Soviet Union to study piano and music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. According to his nephew, Edwin, his record label falsely claimed that he studied music in Europe to “make him acceptable in areas where a black man from a black school wouldn’t have got any recognition at all.”

In 1945, at the age of 18, Shirley performed the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.[ A year later, Shirley performed one of his own compositions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Shirley was married to Jean C. Hill in Cook County, Illinois on December 23, 1952, but they later divorced (in the movie it is implied that he was a homosexual at heart).

Discouraged by the lack of opportunities for black classical musicians, Shirley abandoned the piano as a career for a time. He studied psychology at the University of Chicago and began work in Chicago as a psychologist. There he returned to music. He was given a grant to study the relationship between music and juvenile crime, which had broken out in the postwar era of the early 1950s. While playing in a small club, he experimented with sound to determine how the audience responded. The audience was unaware of his experiments and that students had been planted to gauge their reactions.

At Arthur Fiedler’s invitation, Shirley appeared with the Boston Pops in Chicago in June 1954. In 1955, he performed with the NBC Symphony at the premiere of Ellington’s Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. He also appeared on TV on Arthur Godfrey and His Friends.

Shirley’s first album as a leader was Tonal Expressions, for Cadence Records. It reached No. 14 on Billboards Best-Selling Pop Albums chart in 1955. During the 1950s and 1960s, he recorded many albums for Cadence, experimenting with jazz with a classical influence. In 1961, his single “Water Boy” reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. He performed in New York City at Basin Street East, where Duke Ellington heard him and they started a friendship.

During the 1960s, Shirley went on a number of concert tours, some in Southern states, believing that he could change some minds with his performances. For his initial tour, in 1962, he hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. Their story is dramatized in the 2018 film Green Book, the name of a travel guide for black motorists in the segregated United States. Composer and pianist Kris Bowers doubles for Mahershala Ali and plays the on-screen pieces of Don Shirley in the film. 

The piano piece with which Doc wows the crowd at the bar is Frédéric Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 No. 11 “Winter Wind”. It is considered one of the most difficult pieces to play, earning a 9 (highest) rating on the Henle Levels of Difficulty scale. However, I cannot find evidence that he could play rock’n’roll after hearing Little Richard for the first time on the autoradio.

The friendship between Don Shirley and Tony Lip lasted more than 50 years. After the initial two-month trip, the duo ended up on a tour of about a year. The musician then asked Tony Lip to become his driver and bodyguard during his European tour, but he refused because he did not want to be separated from his family any longer. 

While the film depicts Shirley as estranged from his family and alienated from other African Americans, Shirley’s surviving family members dispute this. They say he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, attended the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, and knew other African American artists and leaders. He also had three brothers which, according to his family, he kept in touch with. 

Author David Hajdu, who met and befriended Shirley in the 1990s through composer Luther Henderson, wrote: “the man I knew was considerably different from the character Ali portrayed with meticulous elegance in Green Book. Cerebral but disarmingly earthy, mercurial, self-protective, and intolerant of imperfections in all things, particularly music, he was as complex and uncategorizable as his sui generis music.”

Quincy Jones said to a crowd after a screening, “I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Don Shirley while I was working as an arranger in New York in the ’50s, and he was without question one of America’s greatest pianists … as skilled a musician as Leonard Bernstein or Van Cliburn…” (IMDb)

Shirley died of heart disease on April 6, 2013, at the age of 86, three months apart from Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. (Wikipedia)

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