Already Oscar buzz is building for a new Hollywood feature film with a major connection to Catholic University. Green Book, due in theaters nationwide on Nov. 21, tells the story of African-American pianist and composer Donald Shirley’s concert tour through America’s segregated South in 1962. It stars Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings; Hidalgo) as Tony Lip, a working-class Italian-American bouncer who agrees to serve as driver for the trip, and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight; Hidden Figures) as Shirley, who received his bachelor’s degree in music from the University in 1953.
The movie takes its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was created to help black motorists traveling in the Jim Crow South. It provided information about motels, restaurants, and other places and services that were relatively friendly to African-Americans in the years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public accommodations.
Variably reported as being born in Kingston, Jamaica, or Pensacola, Fla., in 1927, Shirley was said by family members to be playing the organ in church (his father was an Episcopal priest) at age 3, and to have mastered much of the standard piano concert repertory of the day by age 10. He made his professional debut with the Boston Pops at 18, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor. A year later, in 1946, his first major composition was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
At Catholic, Shirley studied with renowned organist Conrad Bernier and, for advanced composition, with both Bernier and George Thaddeus Jones. Current Professor of Music Andrew Simpson, himself a composer, pianist, and organist, believes Bernier’s influence, in particular, can be heard in much of Shirley’s recorded work.
“Bernier taught a class on fugue, which is the pinnacle of counterpoint and a real demonstration of attainment of technique, and Shirley had amazing classical technique,” says Simpson, who also calls Shirley’s musical legacy “seriously underrated.”
Beyond his achievements as a classical composer—he would eventually compose at least three symphonies, two piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, and a one-act opera, as well as various other works for organ, piano and violin—Simpson says, “Shirley did a lot of things, putting together classical and jazz motifs with his Don Shirley Trio, that anticipated the emergence of so-called ‘Third Stream’ music, which sought to fuse classical and jazz styles. His is a really remarkable body of work that deserves much wider recognition.”
No less a musical luminary than acclaimed composer and conductor Igor Stravinsky said of Shirley, “His virtuosity is worthy of gods.” Other admirers included Boston Pops impresario Arthur Fiedler, and jazz greats Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan.
Shirley died of heart disease in 2013 at age 86, but Green Book, which won the People’s Choice Award at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, promises to reintroduce this erudite and often unconventional musician to a new global audience. Peter Debruge, chief film critic for Variety, says that while Green Book presents “a pretty bleak picture of intolerance in 1962 America,” he also exclaims, “Oh, but to hear Shirley play!”
Read more in the next issue of CatholicU Magazine, due to hit mailboxes early next month.