Donald Shirley, a Pianist With His Own Genre, Dies at 86
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: April 28, 2013
Donald Shirley, a pianist and composer who gathered classical music with jazz and other forms of popular music under a singular umbrella after being discouraged from pursuing a classical career because he was black, died on April 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
His death, which was not widely reported at the time, was caused by complications of heart disease, said Michiel Kappeyne van de Coppello, a friend who studied piano with Mr. Shirley.
A son of Jamaican parents, Mr. Shirley was a musical prodigy who played much of the standard concert repertory by age 10 and made his professional debut with the Boston Pops at 18, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.
But when he was in his 20s, he told his family and friends, the impresario Sol Hurok advised him to pursue a career in popular music and jazz, warning him that American audiences were not willing to accept a “colored” pianist on the concert stage.
Thus derailed, Mr. Shirley took to playing at nightclubs and invented what amounted to his own musical genre. First as part of a duo with a bassist and later as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio, featuring a bassist and a cellist — an unusual instrumentation suggesting the sonorities of an organ — 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.
Mr. Shirley’s music exhibited a vast musical erudition. He was drawn to indigenous American forms, by which he meant the blues, the work song, the Negro spiritual and the show tune, and his compositions referred to those forms. He was not inclined to improvise and disliked being referred to as a jazz musician.
“He had a love-hate relationship with jazz,” Mr. Kappeyne van de Coppello said.
Still, he was close to many well-known jazz figures, including Duke Ellington, in whose honor he wrote “Divertimento for Duke by Don,” a symphonic work that had its premiere in 1974, performed by the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra of Ontario. His other orchestral works include a tone poem inspired by James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.”
His playing was virtuosic and lush, and in performance he often impressed critics with both his sound and invention. (His admirers also included Igor Stravinsky and Sarah Vaughan.) He eventually did make it back to the concert stage, though rarely to perform the standard classical repertory. He played Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at La Scala in Milan; he played at Carnegie Hall with Ellington; he played Gershwin’s Concerto in F, accompanying the Alvin Ailey dancers, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the late 1960s, he made unreleased recordings of Rachmaninoff with the New York Philharmonic and Khachaturian with the Minneapolis Symphony.
“The silky tone and supple rhythmic flow of Mr. Shirley’s playing is just as artful and ingratiating as ever,” Peter G. Davis wrote in The New York Times of a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971. “ ‘I Can’t Get Started’ heard as a Chopin nocturne, or ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as a Rachmaninoff étude, may strike some as a trifle odd, but these — and everything on the program, in fact — were beautifully tailored to spotlight Mr. Shirley’s easy lyrical style and bravura technique.”
Donald Walbridge Shirley was born in Pensacola, Fla., on Jan. 29, 1927. His father, Edwin, was an Episcopal priest, and family lore has it that young Donald was playing the organ in church at age 3. His mother, the former Stella Gertrude Young, a teacher, died when Donald was 9. He studied music at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
He was married once and divorced. He is survived by a brother, Maurice, and a half-sister, Edwina Shirley Nalchawee.
Mr. Shirley made a number of recordings in the 1950s and early ’60s for the Cadence label, including “Piano Perspectives,” “Don Shirley Plays Love Songs,” “Don Shirley Plays Gershwin” and “Don Shirley Plays Shirley.” Later in the 1960s, he recorded with Columbia.
It was the founder of Cadence Records, Archie Bleyer, who insisted that Mr. Shirley be called Don, an informality that stuck with him throughout his career as a nettlesome reminder that he was unable to be known as the concert player he had always wished to be.
Jazz piano players, Mr. Shirley told The Times in 1982, when he was appearing at the Cookery in Greenwich Village, “smoke while they’re playing, and they’ll put the glass of whisky on the piano, and then they’ll get mad when they’re not respected like Arthur Rubinstein. You don’t see Arthur Rubinstein smoking and putting a glass on the piano.”
He added: “I am not an entertainer. But I’m running the risk of being considered an entertainer by going into a nightclub because that’s what they have in there. I don’t want anybody to know me well enough to slap me on the back and say, ‘Hey, baby.’ The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do.”