Pianist/composer Don Shirley, jazz and pop with a classical touch

Herb Boyd | 11/8/2018, 12:08 p.m.

Given the preponderance of ads by political candidates this season during the midterm elections, perhaps you missed the trailer for the movie “Green Book,” which is slated for release later this month. Most folks knowledgeable about “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a travel guide of safety for Black Americans venturing by car through the Jim Crow South, might wonder how a guide could become a movie.

The film has less to do with “The Negro Motorist Green Book” than with a musician who defied some of the book’s advice and warnings, choosing to mark his own path through the dangerous and treacherous backroads. Pianist Don Shirley, the intrepid artist, is the film’s protagonist and during his concert tour of the South, he is driven by a white chauffeur.

That may sound, at first blush, like a “Driving Mr. Daisy,” but there is much more to it than that, and I depart from any further discussion of the film to focus on Shirley’s life and legacy, which is sure to give the film a number of exciting and provocative moments, both musically and cinematically.

Born Donald Walbridge Shirley in Pensacola, Fla., Jan. 19, 1927, he was a musical prodigy of Jamaican heritage who began playing the organ when he was 3. His father was an Episcopal priest and his mother a teacher, who died when Shirley was 9. It was at the Catholic University in Washington that he began a serious study of music.

He was 18 when he made his professional debut with the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor. What began as a promising career in classical music was soon disrupted when told that there was little chance of him, as a Black pianist, succeeding in the classical world. A noted impresario advised him to pursue a career in jazz or popular music, where his race would be less a burden and more acceptable.

This advice was very disconcerting, but Shirley took the admonitions and began devoting himself to performing in nightclubs, investing the American song book and standards with flourishes of the classical background that would distinguish his style. Normally, during the nightclub dates, he performed with a trio, sometimes including a cello. Although his music was entertaining and warmly received, Shirley preferred the stage, where his orchestral interpretations of pop songs could soar beyond the chatter, the smoke and the tinkling of glasses.

As an artist on the Cadence label, Shirley recorded several albums in the ’50s and ’60s that brought a bit of popularity, and certainly enough money to keep him from being the starving artist. Among his recordings were “Don Shirley Plays Love Songs,” “Don Shirley Plays Gershwin” and “Don Shirley Plays Don Shirley.” By the ’60s he had switched to Columbia records.

In 1974, by now fully immersed in a jazz motif despite the classical dismissal, Shirley composed “Divertimento for Duke by Don,” a symphonic work dedicated to Duke Ellington that was performed by the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra of Ontario. Inspired by James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” he later composed a lovely tone poem.