Donald Walbridge Shirley (29 January 1927 - 6 April 2013). I recently went to see the movie Green Book. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry there aren’t any spoilers here - this isn’t a review of the film. Even though Dr Shirley’s family have slammed the film as a ‘symphony of lies’ it is worth a watch. It is of note that no member of Dr Shirley’s family had any input in the making of the film (which is obviously a bit of a concern when trying to tell an accurate story). Born in 1927 to Jamaican parents. Although he was often misidentified as being born in Kingston, Jamaica - his birthplace was Pensacola, Florida. His father was an Episcopal minister and his mother was a teacher. He was playing the piano by the age of two and a half and by age nine Shirley went to the then Soviet Union to study theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music.
It is interesting to see the power of innovation in Don Shirley’s life. Concert manager Sol Hurok told Shirley (at the height of his career during the 1950s) that the world was not ready for a black, classical concert pianist. Needless to say, this was a big mistake. In response, Shirley developed his own style mixing the blues, classical spirituals and popular music. He had the admiration of the composer Igor Stravinsky, who said of Shirley skill that it was "worthy of the gods," and Duke Ellington, who said he would "give up his bench" at the piano to let Shirley demonstrate his prowess. He did perform with Ellington in 1955. Shirley received doctorates in music, liturgical arts and psychology, and briefly pursued a career as a psychologist in the early 1950s.
Shirley also reportedly spoke eight languages fluently and was a talented painter. What an amazing life!