Dr. Don Shirley

Yes, I came to learn of Dr.Don Shirley through the lens of Green Book.  If you haven’t seen it, do so now!  Great movie.  I’m also posting this in honor of Dr. Shirley’s 92nd birthday January 29th.  His full obituary is available at the New York Times. [NOTE – some sources state Don Shirley’s date of birth as January 27. It should also be noted that early publicity stated his place of birth as Kingston Jamaica in order to promote him as a Jamaican musician rather than an African-American musician. Don Shirley’s parents were born in Jamaica, but by most accounts, he was born in Pensacola, Florida January 29, 1927].

I was curious about the availability of his recordings on Discogs and was pleasantly surprised when I was able to purchase a copy of Tonal Expressions and Piano Perspectives.  Both were released in 1955 and purchased for under twenty dollars for both.  To top this off, both recordings were in very good or better condition and the recording quality was very good for that era.  Thanks to Mitch Kozuch for this exchange.

Tonal Expressions was Don Shirley’s first recording and includes jazz standards such as My Funny Valentine, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and I Cover the Waterfront.

Why did he choose I Cover the Waterfront as the first track on his first album.  It is instrumental, but the Johnny Green / Edward Heyman original composition certainly had lyrics beautifully sung by the likes of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra.

Away from the city that hurts and knocks,
I’m standing alone by the desolate docks
In the still and the chill of the night
I see the horizon the great unknown
My heart has an ache
It’s as heavy as stone
With the dawn coming on, make it last.

For all appearances, this is a mournful love song, but when you read these lyrics in the context of Don Shirley’s experience, one has to wonder if they speak to his longing for acceptance and recognition purely as a great classical musician, rather than as a black musician who was told he would never be accepted as a classical musician.

Of course, this song has been covered by hundreds of musicians from jazz to blues to pop.  I especially like the recent Annie Lennox rendition on Nostalgia released in 2014 on Blue Note.

Beyond and including this opening track  Tonal Expressions is an exhibition of Don Shirley’s unique blend of classical and jazz music.

Tonal Expressions was the second LP released by Cadence Records and the first jazz LP from this label.  As a small label Cadence did have some success with Julius La Rosa who was their only signing for the first five years of Cadence existence.  The label’s first major success was Mr. Sandman by the Chordettes.  Cadence officially closed in September 1964.

I can’t speak to the quality of other Cadence or Don Shirley recordings, but can certainly recommend Tonal Expressions if you are able to find a copy in good condition.

I also noted that the album cover design is credited to Don Shirley. From what I’ve been able to read about the man, it does not seem unlikely that he would have wanted to have this degree of control and input into every aspect of his work. Perhaps this is why he also chose to sign with a smaller record label such as Cadence. I contacted Mike Goldstein of Album Cover Hall of Fame to inquire about the prevalence of musician being involved in the creation of their own album covers. Mike never lets me down – read Musicians Who Also Design Album Covers.