“Green Book,” a new film based on the life of Jamaican classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley is scheduled for release in the United States by Universal Pictures on November 21, 2018. The film, which stars Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, a New York bouncer who worked as his driver and security, tells the story of the friendship that develops between Lip and Shirley as they tour America’s Deep South during the 1960s and confront the region’s intense racism. Directed by Peter Farrelly, who also worked on the script, which was written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s son, and Brian Hayes.
The film is named for “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a road travel guide meant to aid African Americans deal with racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws while in the South, including whites-only garages and restaurants and hotels that refused service to people of color.
“Green Book” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2018, winning the People’s Choice Award there. The film has been praised by critics, with special mention made of the performances of Ali and Mortensen.
Donald Walbridge Shirley was born on January 29, 1927, In Kingston, Jamaica. He began playing the piano at the age of two-and-a-half and made his first public appearance at age three. His mother was his first teacher. When he was nine, he received an invitation to study music theory with Mittolovski at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He later studied with Conrad Bemeir, organist, who also taught him advanced composition along with Dr. Thaddeus Jones at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.
In 1945, at 18, he made his concert debut with the Boston Pops playing the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto. In 1946, his first major composition was performed by the London Philharmonic. During his early career, he performed as the soloist with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra Washington, Shirley was a soloist with the orchestra at La Scala, Milan’s legendary opera house, in a program of music by George Gershwin, one of only three pianists to have performed as soloists there.
He gave up the piano as a career for a time in his youth while he worked as a psychologist, but returned to music when he received a grant to study the relationship between music and juvenile crime, which had broken out in Chicago in the 1950s. While working in a small club, he used his psychological and musical skills to experiment with sound to prove that certain tone combinations affect an audience’s reactions. In the 1950s and 1960s, Shirley made 16 albums for Cadence Records. His single “Water Boy” ranked Number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 list, staying on the chart for 14 weeks.
He had a Doctorate of Music, Doctorate of Psychology (University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa), and Doctorate in Liturgical Arts. He spoke eight languages fluently.
Shirley died at the age of 86 in 2013.