Shirley, throughout his lifetime, showed stunning versatility in terms of the various styles of music he explored. Chiefly among these genres were classical, jazz, pop and gospel, although he also explored indigenous American forms such as the blues, the work song, the Negro spiritual and the showtune. He became interested in jazz in the midst of raging controversy concerning its so-called “pernicious” effects; he began to investigate this now celebrated musical style with the mind of both a musician and a psychologist. Despite, according to pianist and long-time friend Michiel Kappeyne van de Coppello, having a love-hate relationship with jazz, Shirley played it with consistent excellence and refreshing invention.
As mentioned previously, Shirley was influenced by a variety of indigenous American genres. Several of the greats, including legendary and groundbreaking composer and pianist George Gershwin, and the incomparable jazz pianist, composer and bandleader, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, also influenced him.
Don Shirley’s primary instrument of choice was the piano. He was a masterfully skilled pianist, often lauded for his effortless showcase of dynamics. Although the piano was his main medium, Shirley succeeded in making the piano a versatile instrument, capable of capturing a flexible and subtle voice, wherein he used the piano at times like a string instrument rather than a percussion instrument.
With his style of playing, he was able to bring to life the many genres he explored, with the underlying touch of a classically trained musician. This was noted by several musicians and music journalists; Peter G. Davis wrote in the New York Times in 1971 about a concert at Carnegie Hall: “The silky tone and supple rhythmic flow of Mr. Shirley’s playing is just as artful and ingratiating as ever. ‘I Can’t Get Started’ heard as a Chopin nocturne, or ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as a Rachmaninoff étude, may strike some as a trifle odd, but these — and everything on the program, in fact — were beautifully tailored to spotlight Mr. Shirley’s easy lyrical style and bravura technique.”
Life as an Arranger, Composer and Pianist
With Shirley’s musical career beginning in the early stages of youth, he accomplished a great deal in the area of performance art. By the age of 10, he was capable of playing most of the standard concert repertoire at the time.As a teenager, Shirley played in New York in the jazz clubs of Basin Street. This is where he was to meet, and play with, the inimitable Duke Ellington.Ellington grew to respect and admire Shirley’s unique musical abilities, and later confessed that Shirley was the sole pianist to whom he would “give up his bench”.
At age 18, Shirley made his concert debut playing the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concertowith the Boston Pops Orchestra led by Dean Dixon on June 25, 1945, after being invited by Arthur Fielder. Shortly thereafter, the London Philharmonic Orchestra performed his first notable composition in 1946.
Three years later in 1949, Shirley was invited by the Haitian government to perform at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince, a world fair held to commemorate the 200 years since the founding of Port-au-Prince. The performance was followed by a request from Archbishop Le Goise and President Estime for a repeat performance the following week.
Following a brief respite from his musical career to engage in academic studies, Shirley returned to the world of music whilst teaching psychology in the early 1950s at the University of Chicago. He was given a grant to study the possibility of a connection between music and the juvenile crime epidemic, which was at an all-time high at the time. He conducted this study by working in a small club, performing and experimenting with sound simultaneously. The study revealed that certain tonal blends would evoke different reactions in the audience, who were unaware of the experiment that was taking place, or of Shirley’s students sitting amongst them and observing their reactions!
Shirley once again had the opportunity to perform with the Boston Pops Orchestra in Chicago in June 1954, at the invitation of Arthur Fielder. Having formed camaraderie with Duke Ellington, Shirley performed the premiere of Ellington’s Piano ConcertoNew Worlds A-Comin’ at Carnegie Hall with the NBC Symphony of the Air, in 1955.
It was an appearance on the show Arthur Godfrey and His Friends however that launched his career nationwide. At the time, the variety television show hosted by the late Arthur Godfrey was ranked amongst the most watched television shows in the entire United States!
Going back to his roots, Shirley gave a performance in Kingston, Jamaica at the Ward Theatre in the fall of 1956 on the 1st of October. The Jamaica Gleaner commended the performance in a review published on October 3, 1956: “Displaying a technique far more prodigious than any demands were made upon it, Dr. Don Shirley, in his opening concert at the Ward Theatre on Saturday evening, gave a performance that was unmarred even by the fact that the lowest octave of the piano was in apart slightly out of tune… His pianissimos were like whispers and his crescendos were well approached. His cadenzas were brilliantly executed and his touch was unusually clean. Altogether his technique should satisfy even the most pedantic."
Shirley appeared as a soloist with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington. In addition, he performed as a guest soloist for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F.
Shirley wrote symphonies, which were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. He also composed two piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin and a symphonic tone poem based on “Finnigan’s Wake”, James Joyce’s fictional work published in 1939.
The following is a comprehensive list of Don Shirley’s musical releases, including Compilations, LPs, EPs, and Singles:
- Tonal Expressions Cadence Records CLP-1001 [M] (1955)
- Piano Perspectives Cadence Records CLP-1004 [M] (1955)
- Orpheus In Underworld Cadence Records CLP-1009 [M] (1956), CLP-3037 [M] (1960)
- Don Shirley Duo Cadence Records CLP-1015 [M] (1956)
- Improvisations by the Don Shirley Duo Cadence Records CLP 1015 (1957), London Records HA-A2046 (1957)
- Don Shirley Solos Cadence Records CLP-3007 [M] (1958)
- Don Shirley with Two Basses Cadence Records CLP-3008 [M] (1958)
- Don Shirley Audio Fidelity Records AFLP-1897 [M], AFSD-5897 [S] (1959)
- Don Shirley Plays Gershwin Cadence Records CLP-3032 [M] (1960)
- Don Shirley Plays Standards Cadence Records CLP-3033 [M] (1960)
- Don Shirley Plays Love Songs Cadence Records CLP-3034 [M] (1960)
- Don Shirley Plays Birdland Lullabies Cadence Records CLP-3035 [M] (1960)
- Don Shirley Plays Showtunes Cadence Records CLP-3036 [M] (1960)
- Don Shirley Trio Cadence Records CLP-3046 [M], CLP-25046 [S] (1961)
- Stand By Me (7”) (1962)
- Piano Arrangements of Spirituals Cadence Records CLP-3049 [M] (1962)
- Pianist Extraordinary Cadence Records CLP-3048 [M] (1962)
- Piano Spirituals (1962)
- Don Shirley Presents Martha Flowers (1962)
- Drown In My Own Tears Cadence Records CLP-3057 [M], CLP-25027 [S] (1962)
- Ol’ Man River/If I Had A Hammer (7”, Single) (1964) Cadence Records
- Water Boy Columbia Records CL-2396 [M], CS-9196 [S] (1965)
- Don Shirley Trio in Concert Columbia Records CS-9684 [S] (1968)
- Gospel According to Don Shirley Columbia Records CS-9723 [S] (1969)
- The Don Shirley Point of View Atlantic Records SD-1605 (1971)
- Concert Series Volumes (1980)
- Golden Classics (1997)
- Tonal Expressions/Piano Perspectives (1999) - Collectables released Tonal Expressions/Piano Perspectives, which contained two complete albums -- TonalExpressions (1984, originally released on Cadence) and PianoPerspectives (1987, originally released on Cadence) -- by Don Shirley on one compact disc.
- Orpheus of the Underworld/Improvisations (1999)
- Solos/Don Shirley with 2 Basses (1999)
- Pianist Extroardinaire/Piano Arrangements of Famous Spirituals (1999)
- Don Shirley Plays Love Songs/Don Shirley Trio (1999)
- Don Shirley Plays Birdland Lullabies/Don Shirley Plays Show Tunes (2001)
- Home with Donald Shirley (2001)
- Water Boy/The Gospel According to Shirley (2003) Sony Music Sony A-61939
- Pianist Extraordinaire, Volumes 1 and 2 (2003)
- Don Shirley Plays Gershwin/Don Plays Standards (2005)
- Don Shirley (Remastered CD Album) (2017) Calle Mayor VM0249
Don Shirley’s most popular single “Water Boy”, a rich and resonant jazz treatment of a traditional work song,reached a peak at number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 on October 9, 1961, and remained on the chart for an impressive 14 weeks.
Having been a composer-in-residence of Carnegie Hall Apartment since 1956, Shirley was the only studio tenant, other than Leonard Bernstein, to play solo concerts at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall was the residence and work places of some major stars such as Marlon Brando.Including appearances with his trio, the Don Shirley Trio, Shirley averaged a staggering 95 concerts a year!
Don Shirley played as a soloist at Milan’s La Scala opera house in a programme dedicated to Gershwin’s music. He was one of just three piano soloists to have performed there, the others being the greats Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter.
Don Shirley passed away at 86 years old on April 6, 2013 at his home in Manhattan, New York. His passing was due to complications related to heart disease.
The Film “Green Book”
In 2018, a film based on Don Shirley’s life “Green Book” was released to critical acclaim, collecting 53 awards including Oscars for Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali) and Best Original Screenplay. The film follows Don Shirley and his driver Tony Lip as they travel through the Jim Crow era Deep South on a concert tour. The film has received a somewhat divisive public reception, with family members decrying the accuracy of the film while others praise its virtues.
Family of Don Shirley blasts “Green Book” and its “Lies”:
Real life friends of Don Shirley Defend Film:
Don Shirley’s Impact- An Interview with Marjorie Whylie
“He was just a very special, special person, and they’re too many people who don’t know anything about him. His consciousness was amazing and the way he approached putting harmonies together.”
A musical veteran herself, Marjorie Whylie has made immeasurable contributions to the music industry in Jamaica, particularly in the areas of musical compositions and arrangements for choreography. She was the Musical Director at the National Dance Theatre Company for 45 years before retiring in 2013. We sat down with her at her home in Kingston to talk about her experiences with Don Shirley and his musical influence on her own approach to her work.
T.A. Brown: So you’ve met Don Shirley in person?
Marjorie Whylie: I met Don Shirley twice, once in 1973 and once in 1980. I was Musical Director of NDTC and we used to do quite a bit of touring. We had a regular tour every two years to New York and it turned out that Don Shirley was a good friend of the Honourable Don Mills. Don Mills was at the UN [United Nations] and he invited four of us from NDTC, Rex Nettleford of course and Barbara Requa, I believe. It was a luncheon at Don Mills’ and Don Shirley was there.
My face just lit up and I’m usually somebody who runs off at the mouth but I could not talk [laughs] when Don Shirley was in the room. Then Don Mills started a conversation with me at the centre that ”This is the Musical Director of NDTC, she plays and composes” and Don Shirley insisted that I get on the piano and play…Lord have mercy [chuckles] but I tried. It seemed to have worked.
We went again to New York in 1980 and Don [Mills] had a few of us over for…this time it was cocktails. Don Shirley was there as well and I got to talk to him a little more and he was telling me that he lived in an apartment…Carnegie Hall. He would go down (he had permission as a resident) to go down and play the piano and he said he would go at 2 o’clock in the morning.
TB: Was the piano in the lobby?
MW: There was a piano in the lobby but there was also- he was allowed to play the Beckstein and the Steinway that were to the side of the stage and there was a whole rehearsal room that had about 8 or 9 pianos in there so he would just go down and have a ball.
The interesting thing about his arrangements- because he had a lot of albums with arrangements of all kinds of things- he was into religious music, a lot of the spirituals. His arrangements were compositions… I used to listen to a lot of that and it helped to guide me in when I was doing things for NDTC, that kind of approach, bringing your classical training into it.
His [Don Shirley’s] most creative period was through the mid-50s to the early 1970s and so on. He was very, very active because there were about 20 albums…that must have come out during that period.
TB: Quite a few
MW: And then when I heard that he started playing at 2 ½ I said I am in amazing company [laughing] because that’s when I started as well…
He performed in Jamaica in 1956 at the Tercentenary Celebrations that brought a lot of artistes of Jamaican parentage and Jamaican descent. Carmen McRae, her cousin lived right in front of me on Collins Green Avenue…there was a young pianist called Jon Robertson and he was a classical pianist. And Don Shirley came.
TB: Was that your first time seeing him perform in a concert setting?
MW: It’s the only time that I’ve seen him in concert.
TB: What was that like?
MW: It just blew my mind. I was transfixed. You know when you can’t move? [Chuckling] And if anyone is saying anything around you, you get very uptight about it, “How can you be talking and he’s playing?” It was either Carib or the cinema that used to be on Slipe Road, which many years after became a church, almost down to Torrington Bridge. They used to have concerts in there, Nat King Cole came and sang there, Billy Eckstine and so on. It used to be the area for jazz; concerts that required a grand piano and so they used to have one on the stage at Carib… I must have been about ten at the time. But as soon as I heard about itI was in Dwight’s [my brother] skin, “I have to go to that, you have to take me to that!”
Joel Ashbourne: Ten years old and haranguing your older brother to take you to a Don Shirley concert? Sounds like Marjorie [laughter]
MW: He was just a very special, special person, and they’re too many people who don’t know anything about him. His consciousness was amazing and the way he approached putting harmonies together. Although his approach to jazz was using all of the elements of composition, of arrangement, of harmonic progressions, yet underneath it you could feel that there was the African blood running through it, the Jamaican rhythm…it’s just amazing the elements he managed to put together.
One little anecdote that’s very funny…Orville [Hammond], when he was in the States he had completed his degree at Oberlin and was deciding what to do, where to go next and he was going to NY and I think we spoke on the phone and he said, “I would love to have a master class with Don Shirley” and I said, “Well you’re talking to the right person because I have his number” so I said ok, call him but he’s a very private person, let him know that you got the number from me and tell him what it is you want to do.
He [Don Shirley] said, “Marjorie Whylie gave you my numbers so why do you want a class with me?” and Orville said that he wanted to understand his different approaches and all of the variety that he has done. Don Shirley told him, “If you know Marjorie Whylie you don’t need me” I said know he couldn’t! The only time he ever heard me play was in Don Mills’ apartment and I can’t even remember what I played [laughter]
TB: I would like to segue into what he was like…Don Shirley, the person.
MW: Well the thing about it is that if you have a room that has Rex Nettleford, Don Mills and Don Shirley and they get into conversation all you do is lean up and listen [laughing] you know. Because the point is he had three Doctorates. An amazing intellectual.
It’s a loss that he’s gone.
TB: But he contributed quite a bit while he was here.
MW: Yes and actually Barbara Requa [NDTC] used one of his albums to choreograph Treadmill. And then Rex Nettleford, his was done when we came back from New York in 1980 and he started working on works for the Season of Dance in ’81. He used the album of Spirituals and the dance was called Gospel According To… There was one where everything was carefully acknowledged in the book called Litany and it was a theme done by Peter [Ashbourne] for Jamal.
TB: You said you had a lot of influence from him [Don Shirley] in terms of his classical approach to music; can you talk a little bit about that?
MW: [Shirley’s influence on the music for Litany] I hope I remember, cause 1981 is more than 30 years ago [laughing] and after that [Litany] I went into using the motifs, going into the minor, turning some of the phrases upside down, backwards, all of that. The choreography [Litany] was episodic so I had to find a mood and didn’t have a lot of instruments…I had two flutes, trumpet, keyboard, guitar, bass and percussion. We had to create different moods because there was a playground scene, and then there was children having grown up and then you have man and woman relationships. So it’s a litany about life. Each time I brought in a variation of the theme.
JA: In terms of his impact with the style that he chose, the “jazzical” [jazz and classical] style, what is your view on how that changed things a little bit?
MW: It affected me personally but it didn’t have a following in Jamaica strangely enough. Whereas people would be turned onto George Shearing and Errol Garner…this kind of easy listening.
JA: Do you have any thoughts on why he didn’t get that kind of popular following in Jamaica?
MW: I think because there was so much of his classical soul in the music. Starting with going off to a conservatory to study theory and then coming back and going to university, keeping up his piano studies, working towards a Doctorate, moving quite a bit.
Somehow they [Jamaicans] didn’t appreciate the mix. They expect to hear serious swing. There were a few that were taken with it but it didn’t become a critical mass. And his albums were not readily available.I got a copy of Tonal Expressions at somewhere in Half-Way-Tree, Aquarius. That was when I was at UWI in 1963, but after that you didn’t see it anywhere.
JA: Personally, how would you say Don Shirley impacted your life?
MW: I began to really appreciate the value of the years that I had spent doing the Royal School Music Examinations and having had a piano teacher who allowed me the freedom to play the popular music, to play some jazz, to play the folk music that was around me…I had a freedom. She always insisted that the examinations were not the be all end all. I began to see the virtue of having gone through that kind of musical education; educating the fingers, educating the mind. I saw what it could do to your creative output and your performance.