The African American pianist Don Shirley wouldn’t be surprised that the country he loved was embracing a screen version of his prickly persona, “Green Book,” rather than grappling with the questions raised by his music.
I cold-called Donald — “I’m not a Don; that’s a stage name” — in 1980, and for a few years, we were friends. I’d just graduated from Yale and moved to Manhattan to seek my fortune. I was studying composition.
I’d discovered his music by accident, while haunting a used record shop. That solo album, recorded in 1955, was one of his best: an improvised suite on the myth of Orpheus in the Underworld. I was compelled by the Stravinsky blurb. (“His virtuosity is worthy of gods.”) The music, by turns lavish and austere, thrilled me.
Donald lived in a “studio” above Carnegie Hall. The place was vast, a silk-and-antique extravaganza adorned with candles and bric-a-brac, a temple erected around a Steinway grand. (He was evicted just before his death in 2013, after 50 years.)
When I’d call and ask what he was up to, Donald would invariably answer: “There are only two things I have to do: Stay black and die.”
When I met him, Donald, then 53, had a shaved head and sinister-looking beard, but he spoke softly and regally, an erudite professor gesturing with agile fingers. Three doctorates, eight languages. He rarely stopped moving. He never stopped talking.
It’s difficult to imagine the younger and skinnier man of 1962, on tour in the Deep South with a tough Brooklyn chauffeur, as portrayed in the movie. Donald never spoke of this to me. But he often talked about the frustrations of being black. When I’d call and ask what he was up to, he’d invariably answer: “There are only two things I have to do: Stay black and die.”
Race was never far from his mind. “It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story,” Donald wrote on a record jacket in 1961. “Americans who evade, so far as possible, all genuine experiences, have therefore no way of assessing the experiences of others and no way of establishing themselves in relation to any way of life which is not their own. Thus the idea of my music can be presented without fear of contradiction, since no American has the knowledge or authority to contest it and no Negro has the voice.”
He grew up the son of Jamaican parents in Pensacola, Fla. His father was an Episcopal minister. His mother, a teacher, died when he was 9. He had three brothers, all of whom became doctors.
Donald was a classical-music prodigy. He declared his presence in 1945, at 18, with the Tchaikovsky Concerto and the Boston Pops. America wasn’t ready for a black concert pianist, even one represented by Sol Hurok. He was told to go into jazz or pop.
His versions of standards tended to merge idioms. His “I Cover the Waterfront” contains passages from Ravel’s “Une Barque sur l’Ocean,” his “I Understand” is built on a Schubert impromptu. He called his versions “transcriptions,” but they’re more like sympathetic re-compositions.
Donald had an uneasy relationship with jazz. He often decried jazz musicians’ ignorance of classical music, and recounted with glee the time he played a Stravinsky prelude for Miles Davis, who committed the unpardonable sin of not recognizing it.
Though Donald felt the concert stage too stuffy, he had a horror of the informal jazz club. “I don’t want someone to slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, baby!’ ” At the keyboard, he often did a comic imitation of the latest hotshot.
Donald’s own trio consisted of piano, bass and cello. Each player’s part was written, not extemporized. Indeed, Donald argued there was no improvisation in jazz, since everybody agreed beforehand on the harmonies.
He had nothing against improvisation, however. “I improvise very well,” he’d say. And he did: I once brought him a theme and watched him improvise a four-voice fugue after subtly improving the original.
At heart Donald was an organist, with one foot in the Baroque. His “Lullaby of Birdland” treats the melody as a fugue. He conceived of his trio as one enormous string instrument. He was writing chamber music. This is evident in his version of “I Can’t Get Started” by Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky), which sounds like missing pages from a Rachmaninoff piano trio.
I never found out the source of his prodigious bravura technique. He never discussed his teachers, though he’d done a long seminar with “Mr. Rachmaninoff.” Perhaps, like all virtuosi, he simply won it with hard work.
At the height of his career, from the mid-’50s to mid-’60s, Donald played 300 concerts a year. When I knew him, he was down to a handful. “Nightclubs are toilets,” he loved to say. From his studio, he’d slip into the back seats of Carnegie Hall and listen with disdain. “Audiences must like watching bad pianists move their fingers,” he said.
He once showed me a knotty passage from a Beethoven sonata that he was practicing. Most colleagues cheated on the passage, he explained, though Friedrich Gulda and Philippe Entremont were notable exceptions. He spoke with derision of Andre Watts, who was enjoying the career that Donald was denied 30 years earlier.
Beyond his talent for embodying the African American experience in music (try “Water Boy”), Donald’s genius was in finding the hidden personality of material (try his album of spirituals). He was so relentlessly inward-looking that he found depth everywhere.
He extended this genius to standards. His “Blue Skies” evokes the Russian heritage of its composer, Irving Berlin, and he was especially insightful with the works of Gershwin, devising a way to play the piano part to “Rhapsody In Blue” along with a compressed version of the orchestral part. At the keyboard, Donald feared nothing.
The lesson of “Green Book” is one Donald taught me: We need to be open to the diversity of expression offered by artists. But we mustn’t congratulate ourselves that, were he alive today, Donald would be welcomed on the classical stage.
Of course, had Donald been allowed to be a concert pianist, we would not have the unique music he left us. This country is very hard on its originals.
Anthony Weller is a musician and writer. As a jazz and classical guitarist, he has released 15 records. He has published four novels and several books of non-fiction.