Home Education and Careers Don Shirley, focus of ‘Green Book,’ draws long-due attention at Catholic University

Don Shirley, focus of ‘Green Book,’ draws long-due attention at Catholic University

Catholic University
Mahershala Ali stars as Don Shirley in the movie "Green Book." The famed pianist was an alum of The Catholic University of America in Washington. (CNS photo/Universal Pictures)

WASHINGTON — Little-known fact: Classical-influenced jazz pianist Don Shirley, the focus of the new movie “Green Book,” was a graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington.

The fact was so little-known that the university’s music faculty didn’t have Shirley on their radar. That is, until the buzz started circulating about the movie, which stars Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) as Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as his driver, Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga.

“Nobody ever spoke of him,” said Catholic University music professor Andrew Simpson of Shirley. Simpson has been teaching at the college since 1997. “I don’t know that he’s really known to the faculty or the students, which is kind of hard to explain. He certainly was very prominent it the field, and was able to branch very effectively and organically from the classical world to the world of jazz.”

One indication of this hybridizing, as Simpson told Catholic News Service in a Nov. 19 telephone interview: “He created a trio. Piano, cello and double bass. That certainly speaks a little bit tor the classical sound. Classical trio is violin, cello and piano. The violin is from the classical world, the bass is from the jazz world.”

Shirley, who died in 2013 at age 86, cracked the pop charts once, in 1965, with a tune called “Water Boy,” staying in the top 40 for 14 weeks. “It starts out with this cello solo pizzicato; the piano comes in playing this gentle jazzy groove. Then the cello comes in again,” Simpson said.

Irving Berlin’s Tin Pan Alley chestnut “Blue Skies” also got a distinctive Shirley treatment, according to Simpson. “It definitely sounds like a baroque keyboard work with the ornamentation and style. It starts out slow, the trio comes in and it gets fast, then it gets super-fast,” he said.

He also rates highly Shirley’s arrangement of fellow pianist George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland.” “He begins it as a romantic kind of piano work — arpeggios in the left hand, Schumann-esque, and suddenly and it’s a fugue and we’re in the18th century,” he noted.

Simpson credits this to Shirley’s study under Catholic University music professor Conrad Bernier, who taught fugue prior to Shirley’s graduation in 1953. “Being able to write a fugue is disciplined, difficult to master. It may be speculation,” he said, “but he may have owed that to Bernier.”

Shirley was prolific, recording two dozen albums in his career, including 19 between 1955-62. He also composed at least three symphonies, two piano concertos, a cello concerto, three string quartets, and a one-act opera, as well as various other works for organ, piano and violin.

The movie’s title comes from a guide for African-Americans traveling in areas, especially in the South, where they could face racial hostility that was published annually from the 1930s into the 1960s. Billed as the “Vacation Without Aggravation” guide, it listed lodgings, restaurants and even gas stations where blacks were welcome.

While based on an actual 1962 trip taken by Shirley and Vallelonga, this “high-minded saga of race relations” is “hobbled by sentimentality thicker than the marinara sauce which occasionally appears. It doesn’t so much lean into stereotypes as take flying, cringe-worthy leaps,” said John Mulderig, associated director of media reviews for Catholic News Service, in his critique of “Green Book.”

The movie has “merit despite its defects, although it’s never clear that either character is experiencing anything along the lines of personal growth, and its ending seems borrowed from ‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles,'” Mulderig noted. “Adults who can navigate plot twists and turns and a lot of food jokes are likely to enjoy it.”

The CNS classification of “Green Book” is A-III — adults — for pervasive racial slurs, references to homosexuality and fleeting rough language.”