Classical pianist turned jazz virtuoso Don Shirley dead at 86

May 15, 2013

The jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley seen on the cover of his Cadence LP "Pianist Extraordinary"
The jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley seen on the cover of his Cadence LP "Pianist Extraordinary"
Credit Cadence Records

When the jazz pianist Don Shirley died on April 6, his passing was not widely reported.

A New York Times obituary noted that the Jamaican born virtuoso pianist was trained in the classical repertoire. Later, the impresario Sol Hurok advised Shirley “to pursue a career in popular music and jazz.” Hurok warned Shirley that “American audiences were not willing to accept a ‘colored’ pianist on the concert stage.”

Despite his extensive musical training that eventually included PhDs in Musicology and Psychology, Shirley allowed Hurok’s advice to derail him from pursuing a career with classical piano.  But in some ways he never left his classical training behind.  

From the late 1940s on, Shirley gained recognition mostly as a piano performer at jazz clubs. He could also be seen occasionally in the Detroit and Chicago symphonies, and as part of the Don Shirley Trio with its unusual piano-cello-bass arrangement.  His recordings of the 1950s and 1960s showed the influence of the classical training he received as a young man. In Shirley’s April 28 New York Times obituary Bruce Weber writes:

“He produced music that synthesized popular and classical sounds. He often melded American and European traditions by embedding a well-known melody within a traditional classical structure... In his hands, Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” for example, became an elaborate set of variations on a theme. In his arrangement — he called his works transcriptions — of George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” the famous melody abruptly became a fugue. His recording of Richard Rodgers’s “This Nearly Was Mine,” from “South Pacific,” was Chopinesque.”

With his classical training, jazz performance experience and recordings of show tunes and standards from the jazz songbook Shirley created a genre all his own

Shirley performed solo piano concerts at Carnegie Hall and played in the premiere of Duke Ellington’s 1956 Piano Concerto. That was the year Shirley became a resident of the Carnegie Hall apartments. A swinging Shirley single Water Boy stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for 14 weeks eventually peaking at #40.

A tribute webpage to Don Shirley notes that:

His music is beyond conventional categories. He is a virtuoso, playing everything from show tunes, to ballads, to his personal arrangements of Negro spirituals, to jazz, and always with the overtone of a classically-trained musician who has utmost respect for the music he is playing. Don's piano style is basically attributed to his using the piano as a stringed instrument rather than a percussion instrument which enables him to have a flexible, subtle voice. He has said, ‘There are three ways to enjoy or to interpret music, from a listening point of view: emotionally,     intellectually, and a combination of the two.’ Igor Stravinsky said of him, "His virtuosity is worthy of Gods."

I was only moderately familiar with Mr. Shirley’s output. News coverage of his passing piqued my interest in his background and influences. A listen to Shirley’s recordings makes it clear that, while he was played jazz, he retained the classical sensibilities gained during his early years.

The New York Times described Shirley’s work as “Chopinesque”. I thought it would be interesting to compare Shirley’s jazz piano work with those of current master of the Chopin oeuvre, the pianist Lang Lang. A master of piano composition Chopin wrote pieces that remain notoriously challenging for performers of the piano repertoire.

Don Shirley’s recording sounds effortless on This Nearly Was Mine from South Pacific. Shirley’s bass line propels the listener forward.  The breezy melody underscores the pianist’s undeniable virtuosity.

Now compare This Nearly Was Mine with Lang’s treatment of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor.

I was impressed with the works’ similarity in tone. Shirley’s treatment of the show tune sounds more like a study in piano dynamics than a Broadway standard. It could fit right alongside a concert performance like Lang’s Nocturne. Shirley’s effort draws you in and carries you along for an expansive trip. The playing is engaging while evoking a simpler time. Despite the century between the composition of the Chopin’s waltz and Richard Rodger’s showtune, the performances exhibit a similar quality. Each piece evokes an unrepressed mood that hints at lament.

Don Shirley retained his classical sensibilities even when he was told that the popular culture of the 1940s couldn’t support a black concert performer. The man who made his concert debut at 18 in 1945 with the Boston Pops couldn’t deny his classical upbringing even when forces around him guided him to another path.