I recently saw the movie, “Green Book,” which is based on the life of pianist Donald Shirley (1927-2013). In 1998, I interviewed Shirley as part of the research carried out by Michael Fitzgerald and myself, culminating in the biography, “Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce.” Gryce and Shirley grew up together in Pensacola, Florida and his recollections were invaluable in providing background and information on Gryce’s early life. Although most of the interview concerns Gryce and his family, I thought it would be informative to share some excerpts from the interview where the pianist mainly talks about himself. It’s interesting to note that Shirley seems to claim birth in Jamaica whereas most sources indicate he was born in Pensacola. Also of note is his displeasure at being referred to as a jazz musician and blaming that categorization on institutional racism.
In the following excerpts, “George” is Gigi Gryce (born George General Grice). The interview was carried out on September 15, 1998.
NC: Are you from Pensacola?
DS: Yes, I’m from Jamaica but I was brought up – my father was an Episcopal priest. And my father was placed in a diocese of Florida and specifically in Pensacola. And that is how I knew George very, very well. We were children together, his sisters and brother. But as long as you’re talking about that, fine. But if you’re going to talk about music, in a technical sense, I would prefer not dealing with that because I don’t know anything about jazz, if you really want to know the truth.
NC: I remember you as a jazz pianist though. Am I wrong?
DS: Well you remember what you have read. This is America, don’t forget it. And I have never known how to play jazz. I love it. Let me get that straight. I have enough enemies already. I love jazz. I love it when it’s played well and I have known everyone who has played it. Now I did have a nightclub background. Now that is where the confusion came in. And I did play opposite Art Tatum, opposite Oscar Peterson, opposite George Shearing, opposite – we were all on the same bill.
NC: That’s probably what I remember.
DS: Well, that’s what you remember but that is not what the product was.
NC: Did you ever play in any ensembles with George?
DS: No. I tell you, I didn’t play jazz. I was playing at Basin Street when I was playing opposite, I think Duke Ellington or even Louis Armstrong, one of them. But anyway, George was playing around the corner. I had never had, I never have played Birdland but you have to understand those clubs were owned by the same people. Birdland, Embers and Basin Street and ultimately the Round Table they were owned by all the same people. Now when I came to New York in fifty-four, I kind of skyrocketed. I stayed at The Embers for twenty-four weeks straight, a record. Now, The Embers, of course, is hardly a jazz room, if you know what I mean.
NC: Well, Marian McPartland played there for quite a while.
DS: Yes she did. Yes she did. What I’m trying to get at is it didn’t have the reputation. It was more of a piano room. And yes, you’re right, the people who played there did play jazz. I guess you could call it a jazz room but I thought of Birdland as I think of the Blue Note, OK? This was not The Embers is what I’m trying to tell you. The Embers was more like The Carlyle. It was more cabaret. Now, Jazz people played there. Dorothy Donegan played there, George Shearing, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson. I don’t know, maybe Billy Taylor may have played there. He probably did, Marian McPartland. Yeah, I guess you would call it a jazz – all I’m telling you – see, I hate the word jazz, number one because the whole damn country uses it as a noun. It’s not a noun. It’s an adjective. And I wish to hell that people like you and everybody else that’s going to put yourselves in the position of being some kind of authority would help straighten that out. I think it’s doing a great disservice to the institution of jazz because the music is, it’s grand. I’m not speaking of the music. I’m talking about the fact that we label things most improperly. And then the people go around believing it, even the players themselves think of it as a noun. It’s not a noun. But at any rate, that’s why I have to be careful trying to be sure that I’m giving you a better picture. I hope that I can give you a good picture of Basin Street, which was a bigger place that did specialize – when they had big bands at Basin Street.
NC: So you were a child prodigy.
DS: I was a child prodigy. But George was a very bright youngster. So was his brother. His brother played something.
NC: [Question regarding Gryce’s early ensemble opportunities]
DS: Yeah. He played with Raymond Sheppard. And the most promising trumpet player who was also in high school was a guy by the name of Herman MacMillan. Now as an example, Gigi did not manifest the kind of immediate flair and talent as did Herman MacMillan, to my recollection. But you have to remember, I was in and out of there most of the time, not knowing that it had been planned that I’d get as far away from that darned place as I could get away. And since I had this prodigious talent, I was able to study at Leningrand with Dr. Mittolovsky and I stayed there. When I came back – then shortly after that, my father was moved from Pensacola. I think I must have left Pensacola for good in the thirties, if you really want to know the truth. It was some place in the thirties because now the Second World War started in forty-one.
NC: So you never graduated from high school in Pensacola?
NC: Let’s go back to New York for a minute. I gather that since you were going in different directions, you didn’t really follow Gigi’s career at all.
DS: Not at all. Not at all. But as a person, when I saw him, I knew who he was. He knew who I was. As a matter of fact, he called to me. He called to me as I was coming out of my door. And he says: “Donald”. And when anybody who calls me Donald, I just love them to death because I can’t stand the word Don, never could stand it.
NC: Sorry about that.
DS: No, it’s not your fault. That’s a game in this society. They’ve decided to save money on printing, you know. On my first album, I had the ability to – I’m also a painter – and I had designed my first album cover. And if you will notice on there it says “Total Expressions”. It says “Donald Shirley.” In [?] bold print. But the next thing I knew – but then I looked at the back of it about six years ago and I looked on the back of the cover and sure enough they’ve got on the bottom: “Cover Design: Don Shirley.” But then my second album came out and all the other twenty came out as “Don Shirley” so I got stuck with that “Don Shirley.” And I hated it and I hate it today. You see the institution itself, the whole society is determined to make me jazz for one reason, Noal, and one reason only. You would think that one would get a chance to be called a jazz pianist if he knew how to play jazz. Wouldn’t you think so?
DS: That’s not why I was called jazz. I was called jazz because I was black.
NC: Yeah, I can certainly understand that.
DS: And as a result, everything I trained for all my life until today has been thwarted because of this stupid racism.
NC: But you didn’t see him [Gryce] routinely in the sixties or the seventies?
DS: No. No, no, no, no, again because my world was one world and his was in another. See, I had my own club when I – I never got along in nightclubs. The only clubs I played in New York were the Embers, Basin Street, and I opened the Roundtable and the Hickory House. Now everything else that was going on at the time – there were several other things going but I never played them because – Birdland was strictly what I would consider hard jazz. I knew everybody that played there and I was very friendly with Count Basie. I was friendly with Dinah Washington. In fact Dinah was a patient of one of my brothers. I knew everybody, don’t misunderstand. But in terms of following them and their careers or buying records, I’ve never, if you really want to know the truth, I’ve never bought a jazz record in my life of anybody. I’ve received many things. I got some stuff from Art Tatum that somebody gave me. Oh, Fran, Fran Hunter gave me a lot of stuff from Art Tatum and then record companies themselves would send me some of other people’s recordings. Erroll Garner lived in the building here with me. And we were very close. But again, George Grice, it was a shock to me that George had amassed that much notoriety, even to the point of playing at Birdland. I was very happy for him, of course.
NC: Well he had a career of about eight years or so, maybe ten years depending on what your parameters are. But basically, from about fifty three to sixty three, he was on the scene. And there’s no question that he was at the top of the jazz world, at least in New York City, during that period, at least up to about 1960 or so.
DS: All right, now in 1960, 1959 I think it was, I signed with Columbia Artists. And I went on my first tour in 1960. And I stayed on tour playing upwards of 197 concerts per season. That is unheard of today. But nonetheless, I still have the roster of all the pianists with Columbia Artists at the time. So that rendered me completely away from everything. I was all over North America, Canada, every state in the United States of America – to go out for 19 weeks at a time before I’d get back to New York. So I missed a lot is what I’m saying, as to who was doing what. But even had I been here, I’m telling you, that isn’t something that I would have gravitated to. I’ll tell you where I used to see most of the jazz musicians and where I liked to go was right around the corner from my house. And that was Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s. I knew Roy Eldridge quite well. They all used to leave four o’clock in the morning and come up to my house. I had drinks up here and they would play and Roy would always – well he would tickle us because I don’t know how many people know that Roy played piano much better than a lot of people who were playing piano, who called themselves pianists.
NC: All the stuff you told me about Pensacola is going to be very useful because we had very little on the early days.
DS: Well let me add this to it: I knew George as a child personally much more than I knew George as a musician. Let that suffice to say. And I was very proud of him and very happy that he was able to succeed. Anybody who could get out of Pensacola – listen, I hate Pensacola. I absolutely hate it. As a matter of fact, a lot of the printing that has gone on in my biography is true. I was born in Jamaica and I never, ever, ever even mentioned the word Pensacola. When they asked me anything about Pensacola, I’d get away from it because I had several terrible things to happen in my family like the Klan, for instance, beating my father and burning down my father’s house. And my mother dying in the hospital because my father was as dark-skinned as he was. My mother was a combination of English and German but born in Jamaica. So for all intents and purposes, in this country she would have been considered a white woman. Look, I didn’t know anything about any of this. You have to understand that I was absolutely as naïve, dumb really, about a lot of things until about 1958. So in talking with George, I could very well – it was easier for me to sympathize and empathize with what George was telling me until I began to hear from other things and other sources that George – well, he told me many things about the CIA and the FBI and what had taken place with his mail. But that was not uncommon with me. My mail many times had been held up and had been opened and lots of other things. I had called the postmaster general. My phones had been tapped and I knew full well that they had been. And so it wasn’t a matter of my looking at George as having made up these things. And it was very pleasant. It was always a very pleasant thing when we bumped into one another here on 57th Street. At that time, I think George even gave me a phone number. And I think we even talked on the phone. But the fact is I know it was at the Henry Hudson Hotel because Nipsy Russell lived in that hotel, always. In fact, Nipsy’s still there. Although the building itself was bought by – in fact my surrogate son lived there – but it was bought by Roosevelt Hospital and I think turned into a [?] for nurses. But to my knowledge, Nipsy still has a residence there. And that’s where George – that’s where he told me he was living. Did I ever visit him there? No. Did he ever visit me in Carnegie Hall? Yes.
Other sources of information on Donald Shirley:
Who Was Don Shirley? ‘Green Book’ Tries to Solve the Mystery
Hear Donald Shirley play “Blue Skies”
Addendum January 12, 2019:
Although Shirley claims in the above interview to know nothing about jazz or how to play in that genre, recent information provided by the iconic vibraphonist Terry Gibbs tells a different story. Gibbs reports that Shirley played in his quartet in the early 1950s, substituting for pianist Billy Taylor at the Downbeat club in New York City. Gibbs said, “Don Played in my little group a few times and sounded good or he wouldn’t have been there. In my band he played Jazz no matter what he classified himself as. I am a staunch Bebop Player and anybody that’s ever played in my band played Jazz.” (Source: comments on my Facebook timeline, December 24, 2018 and a follow up telephone conversation on January 11, 2019.)
Donna M says
Thank you for sharing this. I loved “Green Book” and have been listening to Donald (no more “Don!”) Shirley’s music ever since. I found your article when searching to see whether Marian McPartland had ever interviewed him for her show. That he was brilliant is obvious; you’ve given us a taste of just how complex and unique he was. I don’t know how he would have felt about the film but there’s no doubt that it has stirred up a lot of interest and admiration for his work.
Noal Cohen says
Many thanks for reading and for your comments, Donna. That was a very difficult interview but one of the more insightful ones that I carried out. In my mind, there is no question that Shirley could play jazz. To me, his recordings are a mix of classical, cabaret and jazz.