Don Shirley

Donald Walbridge Shirley (January 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013) was an American classical and jazz pianist and composer. He recorded many albums for Cadence during the 1950s and 1960s, experimenting with jazz with a classical influence. He wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld.

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Don Shirley
Born
Donald Walbridge Shirley

(1927-01-29)January 29, 1927
DiedApril 6, 2013(2013-04-06) (aged 86)
Alma materThe Catholic University of America
University of Chicago
Occupation
  • Musician
  • composer
Spouse(s)Jean C. Hill (divorced)
Musical career
Genres
Instruments
  • Piano
  • organ
Years active1945–2013
Labels

Donald Walbridge Shirley (January 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013) was an American classical and jazz pianist and composer. He recorded many albums for Cadence during the 1950s and 1960s, experimenting with jazz with a classical influence. He wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, Shirley was a promising young student of classical piano. Although he did not achieve recognition in his early career playing traditional classical music, he found success with his blending of various musical traditions.

During the 1960s, Shirley went on a number of concert tours, some in Deep South states. For a year and a half, he hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. Their story was controversially dramatized in the 2018 film Green Book.[1][2]

Biography

Early life

Donald Walbridge Shirley was born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida,[3] to Jamaican immigrants, Stella Gertrude (1903–1936), a teacher, and Edwin S. Shirley (1885–1982), an Episcopal priest.[4] His birthplace was sometimes given as Kingston, Jamaica, because promoters advertised him as being Jamaican-born.[3]

Shirley started to learn piano when he was two years old.[5]A He also 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.[6]

He held a Doctorate of Music, Psychology and Liturgical Arts.[5]

Career: 1945–1953

In 1945, at the age of 18, Shirley performed the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto with the Boston Pops.[5] A year later, Shirley performed one of his compositions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.[5]

In 1949, he received an invitation from the Haitian government to play at the Exposition Internationale du Bi-Centenaire de Port-au-Prince, followed by a request from President Estimé and Archbishop Le Goise for a repeat performance the next week.[7]

Shirley was married to Jean C. Hill in Cook County, Illinois on December 23, 1952,[8] but they later divorced.[9][10]

Discouraged by the lack of opportunities for classical black musicians, Shirley abandoned the piano as a career while young. He studied psychology at the University of Chicago[11] 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. 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.[citation needed]

Career: 1954–2013

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.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Shirley recorded many albums for Cadence Records, 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.

The Negro Motorist Green-Book listed businesses that served black travelers in the segregated South.

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. He hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. Their story is dramatized in the 2018 film Green Book,[1] the name of a travel guide for black motorists in the segregated Southern states. In the fictionalized account, despite some early friction with their differing personalities, the two became good friends. However, Maurice Shirley, Don's brother, said, "My brother never considered Tony to be his 'friend'; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did not look like him, should not be lost in translation."[12] However, in a January 2019 interview with Variety, Tony's son Nick Vallelonga countered that "They were together a year and a half and they did remain friends". He also explained that Shirley, before his death, asked him not to speak to anyone else while writing the story. He went on to explain: "...Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone. And he only wanted certain parts of his life. He only allowed me to tell what happened on the trip. Since [the family] were not on the trip—this is right out of his mouth—he said, 'No one else was there but your father and I. We've told you.' And he approved what I put in and didn't put in. So obviously, to say I didn't contact them, that was hard for me because I didn't want to betray what I promised him."[13]

In late 1968, Shirley performed the Tchaikovsky concerto[citation needed] with the Detroit Symphony. He also worked with the Chicago Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra.[5] He wrote symphonies for the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra. He played as soloist with the orchestra at Milan's La Scala opera house in a program dedicated to George Gershwin's music.[citation needed]

Shirley wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld.

He died of heart disease on April 6, 2013, at the age of 86.[9]

Discography

  • Tonal Expressions (Cadence, 1955)
  • Orpheus in the Underworld (Cadence, 1956)
  • Piano Perspectives (Cadence, 1956)
  • Don Shirley Duo (Cadence, 1956)
  • Don Shirley with Two Basses (Cadence, 1957)
  • Improvisations (Cadence, 1957)
  • Don Shirley (Audio Fidelity, 1959)
  • Don Shirley Solos (Cadence, 1959)
  • Don Shirley Plays Love Songs (Cadence, 1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Gershwin (Cadence, 1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Standards (Cadence, 1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Birdland Lullabies (Cadence, 1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Showtunes (Cadence, 1960)
  • Don Shirley Trio (Cadence, 1961)
  • Piano Arrangements of Spirituals (Cadence, 1962)
  • Pianist Extraordinary (Cadence, 1962)
  • Piano Spirituals (1962)
  • Don Shirley Presents Martha Flowers (1962)
  • Drown in My Own Tears (Cadence, 1962)
  • Water Boy (Columbia, 1965)
  • The Gospel According to Don Shirley (Columbia, 1969)
  • Don Shirley in Concert (Columbia, 1969)
  • The Don Shirley Point of View (Atlantic, 1972)[14]
  • Home with Donald Shirley (2001)

References

  1. 1 2 Greenspan, Rachel E. (November 15, 2018). "The True Story Behind the Movie Green Book". Time. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  2. Harris, Hamil (February 26, 2019). "Who was the real Don Shirley? Family shares dismay at portrayal in 'Green Book'". Retrieved 2019-02-26.
  3. 1 2 "History vs. Hollywood: Green Book". History vs. Hollywood. Retrieved 22 November 2018.
  4. "African American Shirley Lineage". Shirley Association Genealogical Research.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Campbell, Al. "Don Shirley – Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  6. "CatholicU Alumnus Donald Shirley Celebrated in Oscar-Contender Green Book". The Catholic University of America. November 12, 2018. Retrieved February 26, 2019.
  7. "Don Shirley – biography". Nathan Kramer. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
  8. "Cook County, Illinois Marriage Index, 1930–1960". Ancestry. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  9. 1 2 Weber, Bruce (28 April 2013). "Donald Shirley, a Pianist With His Own Genre, Dies at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 November 2018.
  10. "The True Story Behind the Movie 'Green Book'". Time. Retrieved 2019-01-08.
  11. Alleyne, Caleigh (November 14, 2018). "Don Shirley And 'The Green Book' Are The Historical Anchors Of Mahershala Ali's New Segregation-Era Film". Vibe. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
  12. Lynn, Samara (November 29, 2018). "Family of Black Man, Don Shirley, Portrayed in "The Green Book" Blasts Movie and Its "Lies"". Black Enterprise. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  13. Wagmeister, Elizabeth; Nyren, Erin (January 9, 2019). "'Green Book' Writer Defends Film After Family Backlash: Don Shirley 'Approved What I Put In'". Variety. Retrieved February 25, 2019.
  14. "Don Shirley - Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved February 20, 2019.

Bibliography

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