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Everything you need to know about Don Shirley, the subject of Oscar contender Green Book

Melody Lau

Tomorrow is going to be a big day in Hollywood: the nominees for the 91st Academy Awards will finally be revealed.

Even though the Oscar race this year feels more open than in previous years, there are a number of likely contenders for the category of best picture including Bradley Cooper’s debut feature, A Star is Born, the 18th-century English comedy The Favourite and the critically acclaimed Spanish drama Roma. Following the 76th Golden Globe Awards, which took place earlier this month, two more films are now being considered challengers for the big prize: Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, which won Golden Globes for best motion picture, drama and musical or comedy, respectively.

The latter two have perhaps been the most controversial movies of this awards season for their inaccurate portrayal of real-life musical figures. But while many already have a cursory knowledge of Freddie Mercury’s life, and can maybe point out the erroneousness of Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book’s subject, pianist Don Shirley, is a lesser known figure. Because of that, the false representations that may lie within that film, mostly pertaining to the depiction of his friendship in the '60s with driver Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga, are more likely to shape people’s idea of the man, instead of challenge it.

So who was Don Shirley? And what does the film get right, and possibly wrong, about the American musician? Scroll down for an introductory guide to his life, his music and his many incredible achievements.

Shirley began playing piano at a very young age

Shirley was a musical prodigy who started playing piano at the age of three. (Some reports say that he started playing at two.) At nine, he studied musical theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music in the Soviet Union. By 10, he was able to play much of the standard concert repertory. And later on in life, he earned a doctorate of music, psychology and liturgical arts.

Contrary to what promoters said, he is an American-born artist

Even now, some may not know that Shirley was actually born in Pensacola, Fla. Many show promoteres back in the day would falsely advertise that he was from Kingston, Jamaica, where his parents emmigrated from.

One person's words completely redirected Shirley’s career

American impresario Sol Hurok played an integral part in shifting Shirley’s career. When Shirley was in his 20s, after he had already made his concert debut at the age of 18 performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat with the Boston Pops Orchestra, Hurok told him to turn his attention to popular music and jazz instead. “American audiences were not willing to accept a ‘colored’ pianist on the concert stage,” Hurok warned Shirley, as detailed in the New York Times. Shirley took Hurok’s advice.

He didn’t love being called a jazz musician

Classical remained a notable influence in the style of music Shirley played, fusing it with pop and jazz into a signature hybrid sound. But he had a love-hate relationship with jazz and was never content with performing in nightclubs and bars. Shirley was friends with jazz icon Duke Ellington, and was praised by singer Sarah Vaughan, but he never fully fit into that scene. He didn’t like to improvise like many others in the genre. He once said “nightclubs are toilets.” And in 1982, he said that “I almost changed my name twice because I was associated with nightclubs.” Ultimately, Shirley ended up being an acclaimed artist in both jazz and classical realms but many are likely to lump him into the former.

The Don Shirley Trio was not your traditional jazz group

Trios usually consist of a pianist or guitarist along with a bassist and drummer, but the Don Shirley Trio featured an unusual combination: piano, bass and cello. Shirley would write bass parts in the cello range, and cello parts in a viola range. His aim was for it to come together sonically like an organ, as he told the New York Times: "I can't stand the word trio. We are not a trio. We are three men trying to be one instrument."

In 1961, the Don Shirley Trio put out its most successful single, "Water Boy," which peaked at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks.

He has a varied discography

Between the years 1955 and 1972, Shirley recorded 23 albums. Most of them were for the New York City label Cadence Records, including his debut, Tonal Expressions. His recordings stretched beyond jazz: in 1960, he put out a series of Don Shirley Plays... records that included odes to Gershwin, Birdland Lullabies, love songs and showtunes. Most of his discography can be found on streaming services now.

Shirley never abandoned classical entirely. He continued to play occasional concerts like in 1954, when he performed with the Boston Pops again in Chicago, or the following year when he played with the NBC Symphony at the premiere of Duke Ellington's Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. When Ellington died in 1974, Shirley wrote a symphonic work titled Divertimento for Duke by Don, and got the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra to play it.

Shirley valued his career over his personal life

Shirley was married, to Jean C. Hill, but the two divorced. In the interview below, Shirley said he chose music and his career over his marriage. “This was just not the time to play macho,” he explained. “I didn’t have the constitution to do a husband act as well as a concert pianist act because I was dead set on being what I had been trained all my life to be.” There were rumours that Shirley was gay, and a scene in Green Book alludes to an encounter he had while touring the Deep South, but the film’s co-writer and co-producer Nick Vallelonga (son of the film’s protagonist, Frank) says Shirley never addressed his sexual orientation publicly.

He suffered from tendinitis

With the exception of a 2001 album, Shirley stopped recording music after 1972 and he also dialed back on live performances. Some of this is due to the fact that he suffered from tendinitis in one of his fingers. In an interview, he explained, "I can generally play one concert with no problem, but if I have to play one the next night, look out."

The events of Green Book did take place — sort of

Green Book is billed as a film based on a true story of Shirley embarking on a tour of the Deep South in 1962 and hiring an Italian-American driver named Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga as his driver. Its official website says the film is “inspired by a true friendship that transcended race, class and the 1962 Mason-Dixon line.” While the basic plot points of the film are true — Shirley went on tour in 1962 and he did indeed hire Vallelonga — Shirley’s family has since spoken out about the “symphony of lies” that are present throughout the film. (Shirley’s family was not consulted during the filming of Green Book; instead, its only direct tie to the film's main characters is Nick Vallelonga.) In an interview with Shadow and Act, Shirley’s nephew Edwin described his uncle’s portrayal as “very harmful” and “100 per cent wrong.” Shirley’s brother Maurice added: “You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony! Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time.”

Vallelonga says he spoke to Shirley about the film

Vallelonga has been very defensive about his film and has addressed the Shirley family’s complaints. In an interview with Variety, Vallelonga said, “Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone.... This is out of his mouth; he said, ‘Nobody was there but your father and I. And he approved what I put in and what I didn’t put in.” Unfortunately, no one can corroborate this information, as Shirley died in 2013, but Vallelonga continues to stand by Green Book and its depiction of events.


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