Don Shirley at the Piano

No call to bring down further scorn on the Academy’s choice of Green Book as Best Film; Spike Lee’s already handled that in his own, well, spiky way. And the truth is there’s not too much wrong with Green Book as pleasurable movies go – nice performances and along the way an interesting  insight into what passed for middlebrow entertainment in the early 1960s, in this case the rather flashy neo-classical piano style of Don Shirley. As the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson points out in an article in the current issue of the New Yorker, Shirley was “one among dozens of pianists who were popular at mid-century, a moment when the piano was at its zenith in American life.” In America it would have included Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein on the more traditionally classical side of things and light music specialists such as Carmen Cavallaro, whose best-selling recording was his version of Chopin’s Polonaise, Op. 53., and who, of course, paved the way for Liberace, all simpering smiles and glittering arpeggios.

In England there was the duo, Rawicz and Landauer, dispensing popular versions of the classics to radio audiences through the middle years of the century, and Alberto Semprini, whose radio programme, Semprini Serenade, introduced with the words, “Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones”, began as a Sunday afternoon feature on the BBC Light Programme in 1957 and continued for another twenty-five years.

Iverson is interesting discussing Don Shirley’s singular piano style, which leaned towards jazz and popular music, but interpreted through the prism of his classical music training. He quotes the saxophonist Branford Marsalis as saying, “Don Shirley’s music is a joy to listen to. It’s not jazz, and his approach is clearly influenced through classical training. Because he is not a jazz soloist, he has to create momentum through color and melodic exploration.”

It could well have been that, instead of carving out a career as a popular attraction, Shirley could have played in more conventional classical surroundings, but it seems that his colour was against him. As the jazz bassist Ron Carter, whose first choice would have been to have played the symphonic repertoire, was told by no less than Leopold Stokowski, the classical world was “not ready for a colored man to be in their orchestra.” In the UK, the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, though classically trained, found herself held back by similar prejudices, which resulted in her – not, I imagine, totally unhappily – performing a succession of ragtime compositions that topped the charts and propelled her to huge popularity, especially in Australia, where she settled in the 1970s, becoming an Australian citizen two years before her death.

 

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One Reply to “Don Shirley at the Piano”

  1. Love this post and the Iverson article. As Ethan says ‘a wonderful postcard from a nearly vanished era’. I have recently encountered the work of Peter Nero who inhabited a somewhat similar crossover world. Best to leave Joe ‘Mr. Piano’ Henderson and Russ Conway out of it I guess….

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