Like Mahershala Ali as he accepted the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of the pianist Donald Shirley in the best picture winner “Green Book,” I always, or almost always, called him Dr. Shirley. He instructed me to do so within a few minutes of our first conversation, in December 1992, and I honored his wishes in the dozen or so long and unruly talks we had over nearly 10 years. Though I can’t speak directly to the accuracy of “Green Book” — I wasn’t part of the events depicted in the film — I came to know Dr. Shirley well in the 1990s, and the man I knew was considerably different from the character Ali portrayed with meticulous elegance. Cerebral but disarmingly earthy, mercurial, self-protective, and intolerant of imperfections in all things, particularly music, he was as complex and uncategorizable as his sui generis music.
I approached him at the suggestion of the arranger and composer Luther Henderson, for insight into their mutual friend Billy Strayhorn, whom I was researching for my 1996 biography of Strayhorn, “Lush Life.” Henderson phoned him at the end of one of our interviews, while the tape recorder was still running, and said, “F.B.!”
Henderson laughed, looked my way and winked. “I have a boy here who’s writing a book about Swee’ Pea,” he said. “Give him the real story, and try to behave yourself.” Henderson laughed some more, chatted awhile, hung up, and told me Dr. Shirley said I should write a proper letter of introduction and mail it to him care of Carnegie Hall.
I asked Henderson what he meant by “F.B.” He said those were initials for his nickname for Shirley, “Funky Butt,” and recommended I use a less informal term of address.
When Dr. Shirley received my letter he phoned me, correcting me for addressing him in the correspondence as “Mr. Shirley.” His first name, he added for the record, was Donald. He “despised” the familiar Don, he said, because he considered it “vulgar.” I replied that I understood and promised not to ask what “F.B.” stood for. After a pause, he barked, “Fine,” and invited me to his home that evening.
As “Green Book” shows, Dr. Shirley had been living for decades in one of the magisterial studios above Carnegie Hall. He greeted me in casual finery: billowing, satiny pants and beaded slippers, with an intricate carved medallion dangling over a white turtleneck. He had a plate of cheese and crackers, and a bottle of sparkling apple juice set up on a small table. I soaked in the faded opulence of the space, a gallery of art objects and knickknacks collected over a lifetime of world travel, lit solely by early evening light pouring through windows overlooking West 57th Street. In the center of the room, there was a nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano, and alongside it, an industrial humidifier for the preservation of the instrument.
I requested permission to record our conversation, and Dr. Shirley held up an index finger to mime “Hold on a minute.” Before he would agree to speak on the record, he needed to evaluate my competence as a musician, he said, instructing me take a seat on the piano bench and play something of my choice for him.
While I can read music, with effort, and play almost serviceable rock-band piano, I don’t consider myself worthy of polishing a Steinway concert grand. I tried to explain that I thought of scholarship, rather than musicianship, as the discipline relevant to my purpose with him, and demurred with feigned gratitude for the opportunity. Immovable on the matter, Dr. Shirley clapped his hands twice quickly, as if to signal the start of an imperial amusement. I took a seat at the piano and plunked my way through a semblance of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” the only standard I could think of that’s close enough to a 12-bar blues for me to fake.
“Wellll …” Dr. Shirley said. “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. I can’t imagine what we could possibly talk about.”
I asked if he could apply his obvious expertise to the subject of my research, Billy Strayhorn, and his collaborator and sponsor, Duke Ellington, and we were set for the evening. I had to wrap things up mid-conversation because I had brought only two 90-minute tapes.
Dr. Shirley could expound with deep authority and even deeper passions on the subject of music — or, I soon learned, on the subjects of human psychology, American society, politics, cuisine, fine art, folk art, commercial art … whatever struck him as suitable for exposition at the moment. The second time we met in his studio, he cut me off after about an hour and said: “All you want to talk about is Billy Strayhorn. Is that the only thing you care about?” Clearly well read and gifted with extraordinary capacities for recall and synthetic analysis, he had a seemingly inexhaustible body of knowledge at ready disposal and fierce opinions about everything.
“The intellectual curiosity of creative people is something always present,” he told me. “It’s not something you go out one night and come home with, like the damn clap.”
Erudite and salty in roughly equal measures, he once broke down the musical structure of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in eloquent detail, adding that “it was employed in the score of ‘The Red Shoes,’ but nobody hears it because they’re too busy staring at the girl’s legs.”
After about a year, I ran out of things to ask him about Strayhorn and Ellington, but we continued to get together in his studio for conversation and cheese and crackers. He did nearly all the talking, though his talk shifted easily into ranting, often screaming, sometimes in objection to things I did or said. He loathed the magazine I was working for, Entertainment Weekly, while I researched my book, though he never once read it — on principle, he said — and conflated it with the puffy TV series “Entertainment Tonight.” For the first several years of our friendship — and I did come to see it as a friendship, because there was no longer business in it — I served as president of the Duke Ellington Society, a hybrid study group and fan club, and Dr. Shirley found the idea of the organization offensive. “It’s idol worship,” he said. “It’s uncivilized. You need to resign immediately!” (I did not.)
I saw his fiery temper as an outgrowth of his stalwart sense of right and wrong. To me, it seemed of a piece with the exquisite sensitivity of his musicianship. One afternoon in September 1993, I interviewed the choreographer Talley Beatty, who had collaborated with Strayhorn and Ellington, and he asked me if I had talked to Donald Shirley. Indeed, I told him, I saw him fairly regularly. Beatty suggested we go together to Dr. Shirley’s studio that evening, because he wanted to hear him play Scriabin. A few hours later, I was sitting with Beatty as Dr. Shirley played the Scriabin Prelude No. 15 in D flat (from Op. 11), for us. At the conclusion, Beatty and I were both so shaken by the beauty of the music that we were on the brink of tears. Dr. Shirley looked at us and said: “Get yourselves together. This isn’t a damn wake!”
For all his freewheeling pontificating, there were a few subjects Dr. Shirley refused to discuss. He would never tell me where he earned his Ph.D., but would say only that he had three advanced degrees from various institutions. There were aspects of his private life, as well, that he discussed with me strictly on the condition that I would not quote him on these matters by name.
Not long after my biography of Strayhorn was published, the film rights were optioned, and the columnist Liz Smith published an item noting that Denzel Washington would make an excellent Ellington. The next time I visited Dr. Shirley, I told him the news and asked him how he would feel about being portrayed on screen. “Damn foolishness,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it!”
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