Let’s look on the bright side of “Green Book.” It has revived Don Shirley’s music.
Like a lot of people, I wasn’t crazy about the movie, a buddy pic with a racial twist and a smiley face. In it, a white, racist nightclub bouncer from the American North is hired to drive a black classical pianist through the American South on a 1962 performance tour, using the guidebook that let black motorists know where they were allowed to eat and stay.
Along the movie’s scenic highways and byways, the two men bond. The tough-talking white chauffeur helps the effete black musician mellow out, protects him from bad white guys and in the process sheds his own bigotry.
When the two motor back to New York City — spoiler alert — the chauffeur’s previously racist relatives greet the previously unwelcome black man with open arms.
Abracadabra and kumbaya.
On Sunday night, this cartoonish version of race and friendship won the Oscar for Best Picture, provoking a collective howl from people who hated it. I didn’t quite hate it, and I know people, a couple of them black, who liked it a lot. It’s visually pleasing, well-acted and its vision of an America in which we all learn to get along is no doubt well-intentioned.
But such a complex topic isn’t served by such a simplistic telling, and the cheery, caricatured “Green Book” version of our history seems off-key in 2019.
Forget all that for a moment. Let’s focus on the music.
Shirley’s music has been largely left out of the “Green Book” discussion, which is a shame. Reintroducing the music may be the movie’s greatest achievement.
Like most people, I didn’t know Shirley’s playing until recently, but having found it, I’m mesmerized. I heard it first on the radio, before I’d seen the movie. I was driving when I tuned in mid-song to some piano playing that felt slightly different from anything I’d ever heard. It was so riveting I slowed down to listen.
The station played a couple more songs in the same style — rhythmic and melodic, upbeat yet meditative — before the announcer named the player: Don Shirley.
I went home and found more, and in a column a couple of weeks ago, I briefly recommended the album “Don Shirley’s Best.” I’ve been hearing from readers ever since.
“Wow,” wrote one, “thank you for the introduction to Don Shirley and his music! I enjoy music, but certainly not an aficionado, so had never heard of this artist. Interestingly, an acquaintance saw the movie ‘Green Book’ and loved it, but never mentioned Don Shirley.”
Another wrote to say that he’d been inspired to turn off the Sunday political TV talk shows and listen to Don Shirley instead.
“I think the calming music and avoidance of politicians is just what the doctor ordered,” he wrote.
When Shirley died in 2013, his New York Times obituary said he “invented what amounted to his own musical genre.”
Classical, jazz, pop, show tunes, spirituals. They all find a home in his playing. Some of it might be called “easy listening,” though it’s not tepid listening.
I’m particularly fond of his versions of “Stand By Me” and “If I Had a Hammer.” I’ve listened to “Water Boy,” probably his most popular song, hundreds of times, and every time my blood pressure drops.
In a recent L.A. Times piece, the musician Anthony Weller, a friend of Shirley’s, said “he was so relentlessly inward-looking that he found depth everywhere.”
Weller also said that race was never far from Shirley’s mind. He quoted from one of Shirley’s record jackets:
“It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.”
Don Shirley’s story has many elements. “Green Book” reopened that story to the world, even if its telling was incomplete.
Over the weekend, I saw a friend who needed cheering up so I recommended she find Shirley on Amazon Prime. She texted me a while later:
“Having a Don Shirley fest today! What a pleasure!”
No matter what its failures, “Green Book” gets credit for alerting so many of us to that pleasure.