Donald Shirley for Thursday, January 30, 2020

Today marks the birthday of the American pianist and composer Donald Shirley, who was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1927, to Jamaican immigrant parents: a mother who was a teacher and a father an Episcopalian priest. Young Donald was a musical prodigy who made his debut with the Boston Pops at age 18, performing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. If Shirley had been born 20 years later, he might have had the career enjoyed by Andre Watts, who born in 1946. But in the late 1940s, when Shirley was in his 20s, impresario Sol Hurok advised him that America was not ready for a black classical pianist, so instead Shirley toured performing his own arrangements of pop tunes accompanied by cello and double-bass. His Trio recorded successful albums marketed as “jazz” during the 1950s and 60s, but Shirley also released a solo LP of his piano improvisations that sounds more like Debussy or Scriabin, and he composed organ symphonies, string quartets, concertos, chamber works, and a symphonic tone poem based on the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. The 2018 Oscar-winning film “Green Book” sparked renewed interest in Shirley’s career as a performer, but those of us curious to hear his organ symphonies and concert works hope they get a second look as well.