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The Conversation: How 'Green Book' composer Kris Bowers taught piano to Mahershala Ali and honors Don Shirley

The Conversation: How 'Green Book' composer Kris Bowers taught piano to Mahershala Ali and honors Don Shirley
Actor Mahershala Ali, seated at the piano, was coached in piano technique by the film's composer, Kris Bowers, standing behind him, to portray the story of Don Shirley and the concert tour he undertook through the Deep South in 1962. (Patti Perret (Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks))

The homework that film composer and music mentor Kris Bowers had to do before taking on his latest assignment speaks volumes about the unique niche in contemporary American music that pianist Don Shirley carved out for himself more than a half-century ago.

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That legacy is at the heart of “Green Book,” the widely lauded film based on Shirley’s remarkable life and music, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Already the Peter Farrelly-directed film has collected five Golden Globe nominations, including best picture.

Shirley, who trained as a classical musician, was the first African American accepted into the Leningrad Conservatory of Music in the former Soviet Union. But he was more or less forced to abandon his dream to perform the classical music he most loved and instead find a career in jazz and pop music because his record company persuaded him that audiences would not accept a black pianist on classical stages at that time.

Bowers had been directed toward a life at the keyboard even before birth. His parents' dream was for their unborn son to play piano, to the extent that they played piano music consistently while he was still in his mother’s womb. He went on to study at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the Colburn School of Music in L.A. and then the Juilliard School in New York.

Though he hasn’t faced the same struggles that Shirley did decades ago, Bowers does feel a connection with Shirley and didn’t flinch in discussing what he knew about the life, music and racism Shirley experienced as he tried to bridge the worlds of jazz and classical music.

I know a fair amount about jazz and classical music, but I have to confess I was not aware of Don Shirley before I learned about this film.

Me either. I actually went back to Juilliard recently to speak to a couple of my old teachers in the jazz studies program there, and a couple of them didn’t know about him either. The really surprising thing to me is that he put out six albums pretty much flying under the radar. So I’m glad to have been able to help bring his music to new audiences.

That surprises me, given that Shirley lived above Carnegie Hall and had a solid following in New York in the early 1960s when this story takes place. How could he have slipped by the attention of many music aficionados in the jazz and classical worlds?

In one of the meetings I had with my [jazz] teachers, I talked about maybe doing a conversation at Juilliard about Dr. Shirley and his music. They said we should talk to people from the classical department, and they were talking about him as a classical pianist, not a jazz musician. So even now it’s hard to place him.

It’s really an extraordinary journey that Shirley undertook: touring the Deep South with the other two members of his trio at a time when segregation was still institutionalized in many places. As the movie points out, he could have stayed in New York and earned a lot more money and without the racism that met him on that two-month tour.

It’s one of the things that made me so connected to the film in the first place. My grandfather came from the panhandle of Florida, and he moved to California in the ’40s. When he and my grandmother would travel back and forth between Florida and California, he told stories of driving nonstop, being on the highway going 60 and 70 mph and switching places as they were driving to avoid stopping. My grandfather also remembered going into town as a boy with his own father one time, and seeing another 10-year-old white boy call his dad ‘Boy.’ That kind of thing shows how close this story hits home in that way.

Pianist Kris Bowers at work on music he composed for director Peter Farrelly's film 'Green Book.'
Pianist Kris Bowers at work on music he composed for director Peter Farrelly's film 'Green Book.' (Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks)

Did you also connect on any level with the circumstances Shirley faced? What was your experience growing up here in Southern California in the 1990s and early 2000s?

When I was a kid in middle school, I was definitely was the black kid who was called “Oreo,” or people would say I talked white. In college, I had white friends tell me they were blacker than me because of their knowledge of black music. I had a lot of those conversations.

One of the things that really impressed me about the film was the performance sequences. There’s that initial scene where Shirley and his trio start a concert, and the camera is close in on long, sinewy fingers at the beginning of this very complex composition that has elements of jazz and classical music. As the camera pulls back, I expected a quick cut away from those fingers to show us Mahershala Ali’s face the way the movies usually do to trick viewers into thinking the actor is actually performing. But the camera just does a long pull back and we see it is Ali playing, and it was your coaching — along with Ali’s commitment to the role — that makes those performance scenes so refreshingly credible.

We spent about three months doing lessons before we started filming. The crazy thing is we were only supposed to meet the first time for an hour. I planned to start with a C major scale, and thought maybe by the end of an hour he might be able to play up and down one octave with both hands. I was also going to give him a couple of finger exercises to work with.

That first lesson ended up being three hours, just playing the C major scale. That was him not giving up. I had to physically tap him if I wanted him to stop — he would just keep playing because he was so focused. It was really incredible how fast he was able to learn. At the end of that first lesson, he was able to play both hands together over a couple of octaves on the C major scale. I’ve never been able to do that much with a student before.

Actor Mike Hatton, left, as bassist George Dyer, with Mahershala Ali at the piano and composer-piano coach Kris Bowers, standing, at work on "Green Book."
Actor Mike Hatton, left, as bassist George Dyer, with Mahershala Ali at the piano and composer-piano coach Kris Bowers, standing, at work on "Green Book." (Universal Pictures, Participant, and DreamWorks)

So which scenes are you and which are Ali?

In the end, I’m not really sure percentage-wise how much is me and how much is Mahershala. Anything that was pretty difficult, requiring a lot of dexterity, is probably me; the simpler stuff, that’s all him being how and where he needed to be.

Another thing I think music-savvy viewers will appreciate is recognizing just how challenging Shirley’s music is, and how convincingly it’s put across on screen.

From the beginning, one of the main focal points was making sure we were representing Don himself and his music as well as possible. For Tom Wolfe, the music supervisor, part of bringing me into this project, and something we talked a lot about, was that we didn’t want to dumb down his music at all to make it somewhat more palatable.

There’s a really funny bit in which Viggo Mortenson’s character, Tony Lip, mentions Shirley’s record about “the orphans,” the one with children on the cover. It takes Shirley a second to figure out that he’s talking about one of Shirley’s signature recordings, his 1956 solo “Orpheus in the Underworld,” in which he represented the classic Greek tragedy across a series of four movements that flow between classical and jazz performance elements.

We talked about how to make his music relatable for current audiences perhaps by simplifying some of the arrangements, and that idea was quickly thrown out. We felt it would be disrespectful to his piano playing. What makes this story great is how incredible a musician he is. The only way we altered it was that to make the songs fit within a scene, we might have to shorten a song from six minutes to two minutes. The only other thing we changed was the way we mixed [the audio], so it didn’t feel like older recordings but more like a present-day record so that people could get more immersed in the music.

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The story of the friendship between Shirley and Tony Lip is quite touching, especially in the fact that they remained close for the rest of their lives. But more impressive is that the film doesn’t shortchange the musicianship that was central to Don Shirley’s life.

Maybe you wouldn’t notice if it wasn’t done well, but you really do notice if it is done well. I can see somebody [in a movie] just sit at a piano and right away I can tell they’re not a pianist. Instantly I’m taken out of the movie, out of the narrative. If they [the musicians] weren’t convincing with something this difficult, you wouldn’t feel how incredible the music is. It has to be good.

MORE ON ‘GREEN BOOK’

In The Envelope's Actors Roundtable, Viggo Mortensen describes working with Peter Farrelly, known primarily as a comedic director, on the drama "Green Book."

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