This week William Price King introduces us to the life and music of American classical and jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley, the musician that is featured in the recent film Green Book which is well worth watching.
Donald Walbridge Shirley (January 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013) was an American classical and jazz pianist and composer. He recorded many albums for Cadence Records during the 1950s and 1960s, experimenting with jazz with a classical influence. He wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the 1939 novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of “Variations” on the 1858 opera Orpheus in the Underworld.
Born in Pensacola, Florida, Shirley was a promising young student of classical piano. Although he did not achieve recognition in his early career playing traditional classical music, he found success with his blending of various musical traditions.
Discouraged by the lack of opportunities for classical black musicians, Shirley abandoned the piano as a career for a time. He studied psychology at the University of Chicago and began work in Chicago as a psychologist. There he returned to music. He was given a grant to study the relationship between music and juvenile crime, which had broken out in the postwar era of the early 1950s. Playing in a small club, he experimented with sound to determine how the audience responded. The audience was unaware of his experiments and that students had been planted to gauge their reactions
During the 1960s, Shirley went on a number of concert tours, some in Deep South states. For a time, he hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. Their story was dramatized in the 2018 film Green Book, in which he was played by Mahershala Al
In late 1968, Shirley performed the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Detroit Symphony. He also worked with the Chicago Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra.He wrote symphonies for the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra. He played as soloist with the orchestra at Milan’s La Scala opera house in a program dedicated to George Gershwin’s music. Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, who was a contemporary of Shirley’s, said of him, “His virtuosity is worthy of Gods. Discover more about the life of Don Shirley: Wikipedia
Now time for a small selection of tracks from the albums of Don Shirley
“How High the Moon” was written by Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton and first appeared in the 1940 Broadway revue “Two for the Show”. This piece later became Ella Fitzgerald’s signature song. Don Shirley is featured here in this rare live performance with his trio: bassist Ken Fricker, and the cellist Juri Taht.
“Dancing on the Ceiling” from the album “Don Shirley Presents Martha Flowers” was composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1930 for the musical Ever Green. Originally it was part of the musical “Simple Simon” but was taken out of the production just before opening night. The game show “Name that Tune” back in the 1970s presented this song on their program and it was correctly identified and the winner took home the grand prize of $100,000. Whereas conventional jazz trios used drums or guitars to supplement rhythm Shirley’s decision to use classical cello goes a long way in highlighting his aesthetic, which the fancy setting of this old standard exemplifies.
“Orpheus in the Underworld”, released in 1956 on the Cadence label, is a set of original rhapsodies that Shirley based on his own painting which happens to appear on the cover of the album. These improvised rhapsodies do not get your typical jazz treatment, rather a reminder of the classical pianist of the year 1800 spontaneously creating fantasies and moods.
“Water boy”, from the 1965 Columbia album of the same name, is an old prison song, and Avery Robinson’s arrangement of this piece expresses the flavor of the thud of the mallet on the rocks that prisoners were compelled to split. Juri Taht’s cello thuds project this image – a heartbreaking, continuous pounding sound which is interrupted only in the middle refrain by the prisoner’s memories of freedom as the melody presents a glimpse of hope, but then reality sets in, and the water boy returns to the reality of the suffering in his life.
My thanks to William for the amazing artists he has brought to the blog and thank you for dropping in today. As always your feedback is very welcome.
William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.
His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.
While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.
His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.
In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.
His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.