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.

Four on the Floor

Guillaume Hazebrouck transcribed my choruses on “Bags Groove” from the album Philadelphia Beat. It’s quite thrilling to see the transcription done so well. I’ve been working on this style. I’m not all the way there yet, but this is definitely as good as I could do at the time of the 2014 recording. Ben Street and Tootie Heath sound wonderful, of course.

While I’m being egotistical: Hazebrouck sent me this the same day I published Theory of Harmony. Those events reinforced each other in a refreshing way. Whatever I’m playing here, it did not come out of a jazz textbook! (If you want a PDF of the finished Theory of Harmony, sign up for Transitional Technology and email me.)

Drummer Hyland Harris contributed a marvelous essay to Philadelphia Beat. Yesterday Hyland sent me a photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visiting the Louis Armstrong House.

AOC and HH

My own photoessay about visiting the Armstrong house is here.

New in Books: Emily Bernard, Thomas Perry, Lawrence Block

The late Lorraine Gordon introduced me to the work of Emily Bernard one night at her house table at the Village Vanguard. Lorraine had a copy of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White and was raving about it to anyone willing to listen. Van Vechten may not be a immediately familiar name in 2019, but in his heyday he was everywhere as a novelist, partier, photographer, and critic. Last fall, when Mark Turner told me he was working on material for a suite about James Weldon Johnson, I loaned him Bernard’s book. Mark was just as enthralled as I had been. This might be a new stage of major jazz musicians reckoning directly with that era of the history (at the Vanguard last November, Jason Moran explored James Reece Europe the week before Mark brought in James Weldon Johnson), and someone like Bernard is a perfect guide to seeing the bigger picture of race and culture in America.

I’ve promoted Bernard on DTM; I’ve also met her and her husband, John Gennari (who writes about jazz) in person. Naturally, I feel extra pleased about how Bernard’s new book, Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, has been rapturously received by the world at large. (Full disclosure: I get a lovely namecheck in the acknowledgments.)  The raves are everywhere, including Maureen Corrigan/NPR and Kirkus Review. The book went into a second printing the same week of release.

Bernard’s lessons keep reverberating in fresh ways. Originally when seen online, “Teaching the N-Word” was a searing revelation. Now collected in Black is the Body, “Teaching the N-Word” has attained the status of an honored classic. Of the new material, I was especially bowled over by the frank and occasionally hilarious examination of living in Vermont in “People Like Me.”

Now that she’s becoming a more visible literary presence, it will be interesting to see what Bernard writes about next. The latest essay at LitHub, “But What Will Your Daughters Think?” suggests the meditative and honest way Bernard might respond to being widely read.

Thomas Perry has written 26 thrillers. The latest is The Burglar.

Perry excels at describing people at work. Professionals. Men and women who get the job done through the steady and methodical application of skilled labor. Our current specialist is Elle Stowell, a cat burglar who inadvertently ends up as a kind of avenging angel. The book has an unusually slow build, the threads take some time to gather, I was frankly skeptical of the initial sensational murder and “hip young Los Angeles” characters…but eventually the plot turns out to be one of Perry’s most surprising conceits. Indeed, I believe the central moneymaking scam is unprecedented in the literature.

I liked Perry’s previous half-dozen entries, but had also wondered if the author had hit a kind of plateau. The Burglar gave me the kind of breathless wonder I last experienced after The Informant.

Mr. Lawrence Block can still shock! The Matt Scudder saga has turned into a decades-long examination of societal mores. The new novella A Time to Scatter Stones is the latest chapter in what is almost certainly the greatest detective series extant. Block’s spare sentences remain wonderful, especially when they recount the humorous dialogue between Scudder and his wife Elaine. I could say more about this story but I’d prefer everyone else’s jaw to drop just as much as mine did. Don’t read the reviews first.

(Full disclosure: There’s an amusing mention of Scudder and Elaine buying a Bad Plus shirt at the Vanguard. This is at least the second time TBP has made it into a crime story; the first was in Duane Swierczynski’s Severance Package. At any rate, getting mentioned more or less simultaneously in books by Emily Bernard and Lawrence Block is a wonderful birthday present!)