“Green Book” viewers who are not totally versed in the ways of ’50s and ’60s jazz may come away from the heavily Oscar-nominated movie wondering just how well known and respected the film’s central musical figure, Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali), really was in his heyday. The answer: revered enough to have picked up a concert review in Variety that assumed its hepper readers might already be familiar with his prowess.
Shirley was described as “one of the more progressive elements in modern jazz” by Variety‘s critic, who also used the term “far out” to describe his contemporary take on the art form.
The report appeared in the “Nightclub Reviews” section on May 8, 1957 — five years before the events portrayed in “Green Book,” in which the classical and jazz pianist hires Tony Vallelonga (portrayed by Viggo Mortensen) as his driver and bodyguard for a tour of the Mid-West and Deep South.
When Variety caught up with the Don Shirley Duo, its namesake was 30 years old, just shy of releasing his fifth album, “Don Shirley with Two Basses,” and performing in Manhattan at a club called the Embers, “the stronghold of the eastside jazz cult,” which “even has the westsiders crossing over the Fifth Ave. border.” Variety‘s account of that gig:
“Shirley is one of the more progressive elements in modern jazz. Working with Jimmy Bond on bass, the duo brings a chamber music effect and a Bach sound to its jazz improvisations. You have to listen closely to get all of Shirley’s keyboard nuances but it’s worth the effort. In his repertoire, in addition to a far out contemporary jazz piece, are such faves as ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ ‘Our Love is Here to Stay,’ ‘Gentleman Friend,’ ‘What Is There to Say’ and a medley from ‘New Faces of 1952’ which highlighted his first album for Cadence Records.”
“Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly, is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture, actor, supporting actor and original screenplay. Previous Oscar winner Ali has already taken home the Golden Globe for best supporting actor and has been heavily favored to repeat that honor on Sunday’s telecast.
Shirley was a prodigy whose main residence was at Carnegie Hall, “jazz cult strongholds” like the Embers notwithstanding. Born in Pensacola, Florida, Shirley learned piano at age 2, eventually studying theory at the age of 9 with Mittolovski at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He later earned a doctorate of music, psychology and Liturgical Arts. He recorded many albums in the ’50s and ’60s for Cadence Records, including “Orpheus in the Underworld.” He died in 2013.