Keep Listening to Don Shirley

So, Green Book won best picture. That was a mistake, but at least some of the backlash seems out of balance.

I’ve quoted Gerald Early on Louis Armstrong before:

The pain that one feels when Armstrong’s television performances of the middle and late sixties are recalled is so overwhelming as to constitute an enormously bitter grief, a grief made all the keener because it balances so perfectly one’s sense of shame, rage, and despair. The little, gnomish, balding, grinning black man who looked so touchingly like everyone’s black grandfather who had put in thirty years as the janitor of the local schoolhouse or like the old black poolshark who sits in the barbershop talking about how those old boys like Bill Robinson and Jelly Roll Morton could really play the game; this old man whose trumpet playing was just, no, not even a shadowy, ghostly remnant of his days of glory and whose singing had become just a kind of raspy-throated guile, gave the appearance, at last, of being nothing more than terribly old and terribly sick. One shudders to think that perhaps two generations of black Americans remember Louis Armstrong, perhaps one of the most remarkable musical geniuses America ever produced, not only as a silly Uncle Tom but as a pathetically vulnerable, weak old man. During the sixties, a time when black people most vehemently did not wish to appear weak, Armstrong seemed positively dwarfed by the patronizing white talk-show hosts on whose programs he performed, and he seemed to revel in that chilling, embarrassing spotlight.

Early’s despair about Armstrong on TV seems to be similar to those that are in despair about Green Book. Are there those that still think Louis Armstrong was an Uncle Tom? Green Book is far less important than Pops, but perhaps there’s at least a chance that the discussion around the movie will eventually become less bitter.

If Don Shirley had been better-known, there might have been a different response to the movie. Shirley was an obscure figure and his style is remarkably hard to categorize. If you demanded that I place him in one genre for eternity, I’d call Shirley’s output “light music,” although that’s certainly a bit unfair: In my piece I make a case for a lovely solo piano album of spirituals. At any rate, those rushing online to “defend Don Shirley” are staking out a strange position. Shirley has gotten a far bigger second act then anybody could have predicted. Thanks to Green Book, the music of Don Shirley is back from the quietest of graves.

Outtakes from the essay:

“The Man I Love” was Shirley’s showstopper, where he simultaneously offered the melody and a Chopin “Revolutionary Etude” kind of accompaniment in just the left hand. It’s not as profound as a Leopold Godowsky transcription for left hand alone, but Shirley isn’t aiming for anything that profound, either. Shirley’s “The Man I Love” aligns perfectly with a certain strata of Gershwin reception: the virtuosic violin transcriptions of Jascha Heifetz, the lush cocktail piano stylings of Cy Walter, the André Kostelanetz And His Orchestra LP Gershwin Wonderland.

This strata is not the deepest Gershwin reception — from the same era, Duke Ellington’s trio version of “Summertime” is stunningly dark and convoluted — but the charming genre of “hard to play but easy to listen to” was beloved during the post-war years when many American families were acquiring their first Hi-Fi stereo. My uncle Jim never listened to Ellington, but Shirley was just his speed.


Speaking of Ellington, one of Shirley’s most intriguing performances was not released commercially but now can be heard on YouTube. For”New World A-Comin'” Shirley mostly made up the piano part himself (not much was notated by Ellington).



I’m happy to sign a petition to not give “Green Book” any Oscars, especially if we could travel back in time and un-nominate “Whiplash” and “La-La Land.” Among other missteps, these award winning Damian Chazelle films are blithely unaware of any kind of African-American aesthetic. At least the director of Green Book, Peter Farrelly, knows he needs to try to include that aesthetic — although I’m unconvinced that the real Don Shirley could sit in and play the blues as smoothly as Mahershala Ali does.


Ron Carter and George Walker tell their stories in Finding the Right Notes (Carter’s book written by Dan Ouellette) and Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist (Walker’s autobiography).


Don Shirley’s “stateless” condition in Green Book, where he is forging a private path to negate stereotypes and fight institutional racism, is in line with the lives of some of the greatest American musicians, perhaps especially jazz musicians. Some of the sharp critiques of Green Book ignore how a stateless condition is hard to explain in a sound byte. When George Walker won a Pulitzer prize for music, nobody cared, but when the prize went to Kendrick Lamar, everyone could quickly agree that the establishment had recognized black music at last.