Between the years 1955 and 1960 Don Shirley performed in a variety of contexts which included solo piano, piano with trio (bass and cello), and symphony orchestra. Uniquely, one concert with orchestra was his role in performing the piano part of Duke Ellington’s hauntingly beautiful “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto or orchestral suite with piano. This was a role for which Duke Ellington customarily reserved the piano to himself. On only one occasion did Ellington assign the role of piano soloist to someone else – Don Shirley. This occurred on March 16, 1955 at Carnegie Hall when Ellington took up the baton and Mr. Shirley was the pianist – a singular mark of respect. Reputedly, Don Shirley later commented that it was the hardest piece of music he ever had to learn. However all of Don Shirley’s musical training and education gave him the tools to succeed at this difficult task. Consider his solo piano album Pianist Extraordinary, Cadence Records CLP 3048. In his program notes he states he uses transcription as opposed to arrangements:
“An arrangement consists of rearranging notes to serve a purpose. A transcription on the other hand is essentially a re-composition.”
On the album he proceeds to describe in detail just what he means. For example, on his performance of How Deep is the Ocean (Irving Berlin), Don Shirley explains that he employed a form of Mozzoarabic Chant (“an early Eastern form which led to the Gregorian Chant”):
“I’ve used a chorale form with four part harmony. It’s also in a two part song form. The original melody is one part and the introduction becomes the meat of the second part. I’ve tried to emphasize the much part of the lyric, how much do I love you? with the second part attempting to answer how much.”
The excellent liner notes to Cadence CLP 3048 by George T. Simon, allow Don Shirley to explain his thoughts on music, performance, and technique so well. The pianist explains his conception of each song and what each song needs to complete the artistic presentation. There is a reason for not purchasing digital downloads of classical music and jazz, and the reason is that the buyer only gets the music and not the thoughts behind the music – the reason the music was created in the first place. On the Cadence album Don Shirley Plays Standards, the pianist performs “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” which is actually a blend of three Ellington songs “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I Let A Song…” and “Jump for Joy” (from Ellington’s African American Musical of the same name.) Don Shirley manages to bring out the beauty of each piece while letting each song reflect the sonorities of the others. It’s an amazing arrangement…and very heartfelt. Apparently, Duke Ellington was very appreciative of Shirley’s “transcription” of these well-known Ellington classics because it was decided by the two of them that Don would feature it as the encore presentation after the performance at Carnegie Hall on the night of March 16, 1955 of Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto. Duke honored Don by having him perform the piano part of the concerto (usually reserved for Ellington), and Don in turn paid tribute to Duke by weaving the melodies and harmonies of the three Ellington pieces into a solo piano concert work to conclude the Carnegie Hall performance.
Resources Available to Consult:
This Carnegie Hall concert featuring New World A-Comin’ was released on the Italian label, Musica Jazz 2MJP 1021 in 1984. The album is titled Duke Ellington – Le Suites Sinfoniche. It is available on vinyl LP, CD and on digital download. For some reason, Don Shirley is not identified as the pianist on the piano concerto, but the date March 16, 1955 confirms that Mr. Shirley is indeed the piano soloist.
Symphonic Ellington? Rehearing New World A-Comin’ ; David Schief. The Music Quarterly, Vol 96, Issue 3-4, pp. 459-477. This article fully explores the conception behind Ellington’s piano concerto and discusses the role played by Don Shirley in the concert performance of New World A-Comin’ in the March 16, 1955 performance at Carnegie Hall. It also analyzes the structure of this composition.
Duke Ellington As Pianist: A Study of Styles. Mathew J. Cooper, College Music Society, 2013. The author explores the style and technique of Ellington the pianist. The author provides numerous insights into the unique Ellington approach to improvisation and composition. The book includes the author’s transcriptions of works discussed.
Four Symphonic Works by Duke Ellington. Maurice Peress conducting the American Composers Orchestra. Nimbus Records CD and also Music Masters CD. Soloists Roland Hanna (piano), and Jimmy Heath (woodwinds.) Roland Hanna is another jazz pianist who learned the complexities of the Ellington piano style in order to perform New World A-Comin’ with a symphony and jazz orchestra. Formidable technique is in evidence throughout this performance.
Don Shirley. Pianist Extraordinary. Cadence 25048 or Collectables CD 2759.
Don Shirley. Plays Standards. Cadence 3033 or Collectables CD 2789.
Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots. Maurice Peress, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Don Shirley’s original Cadence albums have been transferred to digital CD and are available on the series called “Collectables” (see www.oldies.com) There are all highly recommended for their highly artistic and sumptuous melodic performances.