Green Book is a tour de force of revisionist history. Riddled with racial clichés and indulging in gross embellishments, it achieves historical erasure of epic proportions as even the book from which it takes its title is treated with insignificance.
This movie—loosely based on the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, a African American pianist extraordinaire and his Italian chauffeur/body guard, previously a nightclub bouncer who was hired by Shirley’s record label to accompany him on a 1962 tour which included gigs in the Deep South—privileges the racist imagination of its Hollywood creators whose interpretation of Shirley as a black man whose redemption lies in his restoration to black culture and black people by a white savior, is based entirely on fiction.
Green Book is the 21st century version of the movie Driving Miss Daisy (1989), except that Daisy Werthan would have never taken the wheel from her exhausted African American driver Hoke Colburn so he can make it home to his family in time for Christmas.
In fact, Green Book is the 21st century version of the movie Driving Miss Daisy (1989), except that Daisy Werthan would have never taken the wheel from her exhausted African American driver Hoke Colburn so he can make it home to his family in time for Christmas.
Contrary to the Hollywood character, Dr. Donald Walbridge Shirley was a brilliant virtuoso who loved and was loved in the African American community; his ability to infused numerous musical styles including classical, jazz, blues as well as Negro spirituals defied the limits of music convention which inspired him to create a genre all his own.
Currently, there is no biography of Donald W. Shirley hence his life prior to joining Cadence Records in 1955 is sketchy. What is known of his early years has been gleaned from album liner notes and informal sources.
Shirley was born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida of Jamaican parents who migrated to the American South in 1914. Shirley’s father Edwin Samuel Shirley was an Episcopal priest and his mother Stella Gertrude Young was a teacher who first taught her son to play the piano. Shirley had three brothers (and a sister from his father’s second marriage) who were similarly gifted. Two of his brothers were medical doctors and the other was a sociologist. His youngest brother Edwin Jr. was close friends with civil rights icons Martin and Coretta King and often vacationed with them.
Just six months after his first lesson, Shirley gave his first public performance at age 3. In 1936, the year his mother died, Shirley was invited to study theory with Mittolovski at the prestigious Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He later studied with the famous organist Conrad Bernier who, in addition to Dr. Thaddeus Jones at Catholic University of America in Washington D. C., taught him advanced composition.
On June 25, 1945, at age 18, Shirley made his concert debut with the Boston Pops. His first major composition was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in l946. In 1949 he was invited by the Haitian government to play at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince and gave a repeat performance the following week at the request of President Léon Dumarsais Estimé.
By the early 1950s, Shirley had left the music scene and was practicing psychology in Chicago having obtained doctorates in Music, Psychology and the Liturgical Arts. In 1955 when Shirley resumed his music career, he met music great Duke Ellington. A lasting friendship developed between the two virtuosos with Shirley performing with Ellington’s orchestra for the premier of Duke’s Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall with the NBC Symphony of the Air. It is alleged that Ellington stated of Shirley, “He is the only pianist for whom I would give up my bench.”
Shirley also performed as a guest soloist for the Alvin Ailey Dance Ensemble playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Historian Adele Logan Alexander grew up in New York City and recalled that “ the [upscale] Carlyle Hotel on Madison Ave was really Shirley’s ‘home base.’ He performed there for several stretches every year for well-dressed, well-heeled audiences that included both blacks and whites.”
While Shirley would have been resentful of the racism within classical music that derailed his career as a concert pianist, his friendship with Ellington would have certainly inspired him to move beyond musical boundaries. Hence, rather than despise the music for which he was popular, as the movie insisted, Shirley embraced his own ability to defy convention and create his own music genre. As Cadence Records President Archie Bleyer highlighted on the back cover of Shirley’s 1961 album titled Don Shirley Trio, “He has the same admiration for Odetta [African American folk singer and civil rights activist] and Ellington that he has for Rachmaninoff and Debussy. All these influences
plus many more—create the uniqueness of his musical expression.
The first song from this album, “Water Boy,” the trio’s most popular song and the only song to hit the charts, was a “famous old prison song” which was adopted “from Odetta’s interpretation.” The album also featured a tribute to Shirley’s friend the late Billie Holiday in which he selected four songs he believed perfectly reflected Holiday’s life: Traveling Light, Don’t Explain, Easy Living, and God Bless the Child.
In 1962, the same year Shirley met Vallelonga/Tony Lip, he released an album titled Don Shirley Presents Martha Flowers. Flowers was a world renowned African American mezzo-soprano who Shirley described as, “first and foremost a musician; she can sing anything and sing it well, from a Schubert lieder to a tune from a Broadway show.” Shirley selected the songs for this album “that clearly demonstrate her flexibility, her dramatic talent, and above all her musicianship.”
Indeed, Shirley’s focus was musicianship rather than remaining true to mainstream musical categories. As Bleyer noted:
Don Shirley does not fit any of the “pigeon-hole” categories into which Show Business likes to put people. Although he makes use of the jazz idiom, he cannot be called a “jazz pianist.” Although he makes use of the blues idiom, he cannot be called a “blues pianist.” Because he makes use of the jazz, blues, and classical idioms—and often develops thematic material in the manner of a serious composter—he cannot be called a “popular pianist.” Because he devotes his performing and creative talent to “music of the people”—folk songs, blues, spirituals, and so-called “popular songs”—he cannot be called a “classical pianist.” What is he then? I say he is a uniquely talented creative artist-perhaps a genius—who brings an extraordinary musical experience to anyone who listens to him with an open mind and an open heart.
In a June 27, 2000, email to his fans, Shirley confessed that it was his refusal to be pigeonholed that proved most difficult to his music career. He also apologized for not answering each individual email. “Please accept my apologies. I don’t like to write,” he stated. “ I am not good at it, and often cannot find the right words to compose the answers you deserve.”
Nonetheless, Shirley found the right words to articulate a sense of triumph. “But there is also a feeling of vindication,” he stated. “My music has always been hard to place because it does not adhere to any particular style or school.” Nor did his life adhere to the narrow societal definition of blackness.
Clearly, the movie Green Book has robbed this brilliant man of vindication.
Arica L. Coleman