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Don Shirley: The obscure concert pianist was a musical genius

If the 2018 flick “Green Book” was your first reference to the concert pianist Don Shirley, you’re likely not alone. The Golden Globe award-winning, five-time Oscar-nominated movie, starring Mahershala Ali, documented one of his tours of the South in the 1960s with his white bodyguard and driver “Tony Lip” Vallelonga.

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Filmmakers said the project was based on a true story. However, Shirley’s family called it a “symphony of lies,” criticizing its inaccuracies about the musician’s character. So what was he really all about?

The album cover to the 1959 Don Shirley album “Piano.” Shirley was portrayed by Mahershala Ali in the 2018 film “Green Book.” CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Born Donald Walbridge Shirley on Jan. 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida, to Jamaican immigrants, the artist gravitated to music at an early age. He learned the piano at 2 and picked up the organ at 3, playing the latter at his local church where his father served as an Episcopal minister.

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By the time the prodigy was 9, he was traveling to the Soviet Union to study theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. And at 18, he made his concert debut with the Boston Pops Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat.

A few years later, he was dissuaded from pursuing classical music, because he was told America wouldn’t accepted a black pianist. But Shirley persisted. He developed his own unique genre by fusing blues, spirituals, show tunes and popular music into his compositions.

Mahershala Ali plays Don Shirley in the 2018 film “Green Book.” Ali has won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor for the role, and he’s also up for an Oscar. CONTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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“I introduced the contrapuntal aspect of music into popular music, and this is something that no jazz musician could do or ever thought of doing,” he once told The New York Times.

Throughout his nearly seven-decade career, he composed 25 albums, three symphonies, two piano concertos, a cello concerto, three string quartets and a one-act opera.

Playing exclusively on a Steinway, the cultured musician performed with renowned organizations and artists, including Duke Ellington, the Symphony of the Air Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. He also often collaborated with bassist Ken Fricker and cellist Juri Taht as the Don Shirley Trio. Their self-titled 1961 album produced the Billboard top 40 hit “Water Boy,” which maintained its spot on the list for 14 weeks.

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When he wasn’t performing at prestigious venues, such as Milan’s La Scala Opera House and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, he resided in the artists’ colony of Carnegie Studios above Carnegie Hall. The extravagant apartment, which he lived in for more than 50 years, featured floor-to-ceiling windows, a crystal chandelier, shelves of books and stunning gifts he received while traveling the world.

Shirley, who earned two honorary degrees and spoke eight languages, was also active in the civil rights movement. The composer, who often had to go through the back door of nightclubs and use closets for dressing rooms at his own shows, befriended activists, including Nina Simone and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was present for the march in Selma in 1965, too.

His career dwindled in the early 1970s after he developed tendinitis in his right hand, but he continued to perform occasionally through the 2000s and dropped his very last album, titled “Home With Don Shirley,” in 2001.

On April 6, 2013, Shirley died from complications of heart disease in New York City.

In The New York Times article, he explained he wanted to approach the black experience through music “with a sense of dignity.” He said, “That’s all I have ever tried to do.”

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