Green Book, the story of African-American pianist and composer Donald Shirley’s concert tour through America’s segregated South in 1962, won Best Picture at the Feb. 24 Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles. Mahershala Ali also picked up his second golden statuette as best supporting actor — he previously won for 2016’s Moonlight — for his role as Shirley, who received his bachelor’s degree in music from Catholic University in 1953.
The film also took home an Oscar for best original screenplay.
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.
On its way to Oscar glory, Green Book also won the People’s Choice Award at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival, the Producers Guild of America best picture award, and a Golden Globe for best motion picture, musical or comedy. The American Film Institute ranks it among the Top 10 films of 2018.
Read more in the fall issue of CatholicU Magazine.