The acclaimed film "Green Book" recounts the travels of musician Don Shirley during the early 1960s. Shirley, part of a dynamic trio, delivered a memorable performance on the Hanover College campus, Jan. 16, 1963, as part of the Community Artists Series. That concert, featuring five encores, was chronicled by Robb Baker '65 in The Hanover College Triangle, published just two days after the show.
Encores galore herald Don Shirley Trio
By Robb Baker
Surely some sort of new record was set in Hanover entertainment last Wednesday night when the Don Shirley Trio was called back for five encores and even then left the audience clamoring for more.
The performance was one of the finest offerings of the Community Artists Series in recent years. The group’s playing was characterized by an intensity of feeling and an unusually close rapport with the audience.
The trio is composed of Don Shirley, pianist; Juri Taht, cellist; and Kenneth Fricker, bass. They have been playing together since 1958.
In an interview, Dr. Shirley (he holds three Ph.D.’s) expressed distaste in having his group typed. “We are not a jazz combo. We play all kinds of music – show tunes, folk music, jazz, classical, even hymns. We dislike being categorized.
“What we try to do is present and perpetuate a healthier understanding of and for American music of all kinds. I feel that Americans should do more to develop their own in the various fields of art instead of borrowing so much from the rest of the world.
“We’re simply three guys who love to play good music of all kinds and share it with others.”
Shirley went on the say, “To me, music is sort of like God. It is equally undefinable, being something outside of man that is greater than any single man. Just as no one would say that there is a good God and a bad God, there is no such thing as “good“ music and “bad” music. Music is simply music, although it may sometimes be badly written or badly performed. But then it is the composer or the performer who is bad, not the music itself.”
The trio plays transcriptions (recompositions) of all the material they perform. This is in contrast to arrangements, the form used by most musical groups.
Of special note on the evening’s program were the Gershwin medley from “Porgy and Bess,” the group’s popular rendition of “Water Boy,” and Mr. Fricker’s solo of the Negro spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”
Man of varied Interests
Don Shirley, pianist and leader of the group, is a free artist whose musical talents have won him the admiration of classicist Igor Strvinsky who said “his virtuosity is worthy of the Gods.” Duke Ellington, high priest of jazz, says: “Not only is he great musically but he has the fingers to execute his greatness.”
With Shirley are Juri Taht, cellist, and Kenneth Fricker, bassist. The trio does not announce its program in advance. Instead it selects its numbers to conform to the moods of its audience.
Shirley made his American debut as pianist with the Boston Pops Orchestra and his first major composition was played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. At that point he suddenly deserted music and began the study of psychology, earning the Ph.D. degree in this field. While teaching at the University of Chicago, Shirley began a study of the relationship between crime and music.
Soon he found himself testing musical arrangements on his audiences at a small Chicago club and he was back in music for good. He has written four organ “symphonies,” is considered an expert in Ambrosian and Gregorian chants and also holds a Ph.D. in Liturgical Arts.
He has done serious painting, has designed sets for television, and has recorded 17 albums. He know most of the Middle Eastern languages and has read the Koran in its original Arabic.