1.1k readers

Who Was Don Shirley, The Virtuosic Pianist At The Center Of 'Green Book'?

Updated November 28, 2018 1.1k views13 items

The 2018 film Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, tells the story of Don Shirley, a highly regarded and immensely talented pianist and composer who didn't receive his due in the annals of history. Even though the pianist achieved modest success with the Don Shirley Trio, he never earned the accolades of other musicians of the time. He turned the world of classical music on its head while forging his way through jazz, a genre he despised but was pushed into due to the racist idea that, as a Black man, he wouldn't be accepted in the classical community. 

Green Book brings this little-known musician's story out in the open and might lead to more research into his life and his impact on the music scene. The facts we do know about Don Shirley reveal a story of someone pursuing a dream even after that dream changes, and succeeding creatively despite stereotypes.

  • He Wasn't A Fan Of Improvisation

    He Wasn't A Fan Of Improvisation
    Photo: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

    Not only did Don Shirley dislike being called a jazz musician, but he also abhorred improvisation. This is likely due to his love of classical music, and the minute details to which the style adheres.

    Despite blending the blues, spirituals, and work songs into his erudite musical tapestry, Shirley was not a jazz cat. He told The New York Times:

    [Jazz pianists] smoke while they’re playing, and they’ll put the glass of whiskey on the piano, and then they’ll get mad when they’re not respected like Arthur Rubinstein. You don’t see Arthur Rubinstein smoking and putting a glass on the piano.

  • He Didn't Like Playing In Clubs

    He Didn't Like Playing In Clubs
    Photo: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

    Shirley, as a classically trained pianist, believed he should be playing in a concert hall or with a symphony, according to a 1982 The New York Times article. Due to his status as a jazz pianist, however, he was often forced to play in bars and clubs that he disliked. His club tours came about from his recording contract with Cadence Records, a jazz label from New York City.

    Even though he played nearly 100 gigs a year, Shirley resented playing in the venues that booked him because he felt they didn't respect his music. Clubs and bars weren't the only places where Shirley played, but he spent the majority of his career in these venues.

  • He Was An Accomplished Soloist

    He Was An Accomplished Soloist
    Photo: Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

    Shirley was an accomplished soloist who performed regularly with the Boston Pops and Chicago Symphony. He even played solo concerts at Carnegie Hall, a rare achievement for a lesser-known talent. In Milan, Shirley was a soloist with an orchestra dedicated to the music of George Gershwin.

    His solo classical performances were reportedly awe-inspiring, with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky allegedly saying "his virtuosity is worthy of gods."

  • He Lived Above Carnegie Hall For Over 50 Years

    He Lived Above Carnegie Hall For Over 50 Years
    Photo: Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks

    For much of his life, Shirley lived in an artist's apartment above Carnegie Hall. The apartments, which the Huffington Post reports were constructed in 1895, were meant to be both living areas for artists and teaching spaces where they could focus on their craft. Other notable residents of the Carnegie Hall artist lofts were Leonard Bernstein, photographer Bill Cunningham, and poet Elizabeth Sargent.

    Bernstein and Shirley were the only two inhabitants of the Carnegie Hall apartments ever to perform solo at the venue.