The African-American pianist Don Shirley wouldn’t be surprised that the country he loved was prepared to embrace a screen version of his prickly persona rather than grapple with the societal questions raised by his music.
Decades ago, before I moved overseas, for several years we were very good friends. I met Donald (“I’m not a Don. That’s a stage name.”) in 1980. I’d just graduated from Yale, and made my way to Manhattan to seek my fortune as an artist. I was a classical as well as a jazz guitarist; the combination was much rarer then. I’d been a music major at Yale and was still studying composition. In those days, the famous were more accessible than now. I looked up Shirley in the phone book—he was unlisted—then called the Musicians’ Union.
I’d discovered his music by accident, haunting a used-record shop near my college apartment. That solo 1955 LP was one of his best: his improvised sonata on the myth of Orpheus in the Underworld. I was attracted to the formality of his approach as well as the kudos of the notoriously hard-to-please Igor Stravinsky (“His virtuosity is worthy of gods.”). The music, by turns dreamily lavish or austerely rational, thrilled me.
I was particularly taken by how this fellow Shirley suggested the Underworld from the very get-go, restating his opening theme in the parallel minor tonality, then using that idea throughout the sonata. This organic architecture appealed enormously.
Donald asked me to drop by for a chat. He lived in a “studio” above Carnegie Hall. (After nearly fifty years, he moved out just before his death.) The high-ceilinged place was vast, ornate, a silk-and-antique extravaganza, hung with billowy drapes and festooned with candles and bric-a-brac. It seemed a temple consecrated to the Steinway grand. Donald was big, shaven-headed, with a misleadingly sinister mustache. He spoke regally and softly, an erudite professor or high-pitched priest. He tolerated only believers, gesturing with agile fingers. Three doctorates, eight languages. He rarely stopped moving. He never stopped talking. It was exhausting.
He was then fifty-three. Difficult to imagine the younger and skinnier man of 1962, on tour in the Deep South with a tough Brooklyn chauffeur, as portrayed by the movie. Donald never spoke of this to me. He often spoke of the frustrations of being black. When I’d call him up and ask what he had to do, he’d invariably answer, “There are only two things I have to do. Stay black, and die.”
Race was never far from his mind. In 1961 Donald wrote, “It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story... Americans who evade, so far as possible, all genuine experiences, have therefore no way of assessing the experiences of others and no way of establishing themselves in relation to any way of life which is not their own. Thus the idea of my music can be presented without fear of contradiction, since no American has the knowledge or authority to contest it and no Negro has the voice.”
I am white, brought up in Georgia; that last clause broke my heart.
Shirley’s music has worn well. Though it can be precious or bombastic, most of the time it remains fresh and audacious. Donald was right: the tradition of American song is richer than one might suppose.
He grew up a prodigy, son of comfortable Jamaican parents in Pensacola, Florida (his father was an Episcopal minister; his mother, a teacher, died when he was nine; his three brothers became doctors), then attended Catholic University in D.C. He declared his presence at eighteen with the Tchaikowsky Concerto and the Boston Pops. Mid-century America wasn’t ready for a black concert pianist, even represented by Sol Hurok. He was told to go into jazz or pop.
At the height of his career, the mid-fifties to mid-sixties, he played three hundred concerts a year. When I knew him, he was down to a handful.
“Nightclubs are toilets,” he liked to say. He avoided them. Many of his versions of standards show a tendency to merge the classics, which Donald had grown up in, with more customary idioms. He called his versions “transcriptions,” but they’re more like sympathetic re-compositions. Thus his I Cover the Waterfront contains passages from Ravel’s “Une Barque sur l'Ocean,” and his I Understand is constructed upon a Schubert impromptu. Today this seems a party trick, an attempt to avoid handling this material as jazz. But it’s much, much deeper than that.
Donald had an uneasy relationship with jazz. He often did a comic imitation at the keyboard of the latest hotshot. He admired Art Tatum, and was pallbearer for both Billie Holiday and Bill Evans; we went one evening to hear the master pianist Ellis Larkins, who was flummoxed to see him. Donald’s trio consisted of piano, bass, and cello; each player’s part was written; there was no improvisation. (Indeed, Donald argued there was no true improvisation in jazz, since everybody agreed beforehand on the harmonies.) Though Donald felt the concert stage was too stuffy, he had a horror of the informality of the jazz club. “I don’t want someone to slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, baby!’”
After a career as a jazz musician, I can say with confidence that he was partly wrong. Though it’s recognized more in practice than in theory, jazz does involve improvised variations on a theme. (See Gunther Schuller’s 1958 analysis of Sonny Rollins’ Blue Seven.) Donald often aptly decried jazz musicians’ lazy ignorance of classical music. He recounted with glee having played a recent Stravinsky prelude for Miles Davis, who committed the unpardonable sin of not recognizing it.
Donald had nothing against improvisation; “I improvise very well,” he’d say. And he did: I once brought him a fugue subject, and watched him improvise a four-voice fugue after subtly improving the original theme. (I wondered whether to ask him to explain what he’d done.) He was at heart an organist, with one foot in the Baroque; his Lullaby of Birdland treats the melody as a fugue. He conceived of the piano as a stringed instrument and of his trio as one enormous stringed instrument. He was writing chamber music. This is evident in his trio setting of I Can’t Get Started by Vernon Duke (real name: Vladimir Dukelsky), which sounds like missing pages from a Rachmaninoff piano trio.
I never found out the source of his prodigious bravura technique; he never discussed his teachers, though he’d done a long seminar with “Mr. Rachmaninoff.” Perhaps, like all virtuosi, he simply bought it from his body with hard work. He did recommend a wonderful, neglected book, Music At Your Fingertips, by the piano teacher Ruth Slenzynka. It’s full of solid advice for any instrumentalist.
Donald used to slip from his studio into the back seats of Carnegie Hall so he could listen with disdain. “Audiences must like watching bad pianists move their fingers.” One afternoon he showed me a knotty passage from a Beethoven sonata that he was practicing; most of his colleagues cheated on the passage. Gulda and Entremont were notable exceptions. He spoke with derision of André Watts, who enjoyed the career that Donald was denied thirty years earlier. A tragedy of his career is that so few classical recordings exist.
Beyond his talent for embodying the African-American experience in music (try his trio’s Water Boy), Donald’s genius lay in an ability to find the hidden personality of musical material. (Try his solo LP of spirituals.) He extended this sympathy to standards: his Blue Skies evokes the Russian heritage of its composer, Irving Berlin. He was especially insightful about the works of George Gershwin. When I knew him, Donald was working on a way to play both the piano part to Rhapsody In Blue—which he performed many times—along with a compressed version of the orchestral part. At the keyboard, he was afraid of nothing.
One overlooked treasure from his extensive discography is a 1962 LP with the forgotten soprano Martha Flowers—“the alternate, not the understudy, for Leontyne Price.” It’s a convincing foray of an opera singer into popular material. The disc also features the finest trio performance of the Porgy and Bess Medley.
Much can be gleaned from examining his two recordings of The Man I Love, done about a decade apart. In the latter, the melody is played, with arpeggio accompaniment, by left hand alone. (In performance he’d drop his right hand to his side.) I believe Donald was influenced by James Joyce, whom he admired greatly; the core of both versions seems to mimic the “Oxen of the Sun” passage from Ulysses, in which Joyce systematically exploits all the styles of English prose in chronological order. Donald does the same for his variations, from Baroque to classical to romantic to modern. It’s up to you to follow the stylistic shifts, since he makes it all sound logical and natural.
Donald taught me—and one lesson of “Green Book” is—we must constantly open ourselves to the diversity of expression offered by artists. There ought to be room in the society for everybody. We mustn’t congratulate ourselves that today a Shirley would be encouraged, even welcomed, upon the classical stage. Often the rarest butterflies go extinct. But had Donald been allowed to be a concert pianist, we would not have the world of unique music he left us. As the expression goes, “You can’t have it both ways. The butter, and the money for the butter.” This country is very hard on its originals.