Don Shirley: Solo Piano, Concert and Chamber Music

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of Digital

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of

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  There are all highly recommended for their highly artistic and sumptuous melodic performances.



Donald Shirley



Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at


Growing up in the Chicago area as a kid I heard Don Shirley records all the time on the several jazz FM radio stations.  They would regularly play Billy Taylor, the latest Ahmad Jamal, Phineas Newborn Jr, Eddie Higgins, Ramsey Lewis, and Don Shirley.  It never occurred to me that he wasn’t a jazz musician.  Sure he had an unusual trio (piano, bass, and cello), but all the jazz groups were a bit unusual back then:  Chico Hamilton Quintet; The Mitchell-Ruff Duo:  John Lewis and the MJQ ; Bob Cooper and Bub Shank featured flute and oboe. The recordings Don Shirley made with bassist, Richard Davis were smokin’ – they were so hot.  On They Can’t Take That Away from Me (Don Shirley Plays Gershwin) Davis played a super-charged walking bass while Shirley switched between blues, stride, concert, and Teddy Wilson-style piano.  And then, of course, there was “Water Boy” and “Drown in My Own Tears” – blues and gospel on every track.  I think Don Shirley mixed up styles and demonstrated that swing, concert piano, and gospel can all work together.  We can hear his influence in many of the major piano artists since that time.  I know that Mr. Shirley publicly stated that he was “not a jazz musician” but I think he was simply trying to avoid being pigeon-holed.  However, his statements have worked against him in terms of getting the recognition he deserves.  We all owe him a debt of gratitude. He never made a bad record and he never bowed to the type of commercialism that has taken its toll on the music industry today.  I think he and Duke Ellington had much in common in this regard – a deep appreciation for quality.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is one of the most melancholy and beautiful expressions of loneliness and the sense of being ‘lost’ that I know.”

– Don Shirley (1960) liner notes to Piano Arrangements of Famous Spirituals

Pianist, Don Shirley, recorded his Piano Arrangements of Famous Spirituals a full four years before the epic Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.  He did so because “Musicologists all over the world recognize that the Negro spiritual is by far the greatest art form to come out of this country…I found that these spirituals had a great impact on me, particularly in the light of current events (circa 1960), and I began to realize that generally not too much is understood about the Negro spiritual…The basic fact about the Negro spiritual is that it is a medium of expression that transcends all the horrors on earth, all the pain the Negro suffered in this country.  And the beauty of it was, this could never be taken away from him; the spiritual was an area of privacy that could never be invaded.”

In 1962 Don Shirley released Drown In My Own Tears – Cadence CLP 3057/Stereo CLP 25057 which demonstrated his ability to play gospel, blues, and jazz much in the manner of Ray Charles.  In fact, several of the songs on the album are essentially rhythm and blues:  Drown in My Own Tears, Stand by Me, Georgia, Amen, Just for a Thrill, and the Etta James’ classic At Last (which was originally composed by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the Glenn Miller band.)  “In these songs I’m coming back to the roots,” he explained in the liner notes “Trying to find any way to play honestly and truthfully has been difficult…I happen to be the living example of something I’m not able to identify myself with…”  In his liner notes Don Shirley is telling us that he realized that he wasn’t fully in touch with himself and his roots. It wasn’t enough to be playing a hybrid conservatory style music as a college-educated (three doctorates) classically-trained pianist while living in a country being torn apart by racism and segregation and the cultural “bad faith” of Jim Crow racism – a hypocritical practice of racism while espousing equality for all.  As an African-American man and artist he knew that European school of music he grew up in was not addressing his needs or the needs of his people.  He made the radical decision to play differently…to play from his soul…and in the process he discovered who Don Shirley really was.  His need to express himself musically liberated him.  The album Drown in My Own Tears isn’t just another long-playing record, it is a statement, a testament and a magnificent artistic achievement.  A lot of classically trained musicians attempt to play jazz and blues, but they fail because it is a sham, a fakery…they are merely posturing  in order to be commercial.  On this album, Don Shirley came as close as anyone ever has to discovering himself through his music.  It is a remarkable achievement.  On every song, Shirley foregoes his awesome technique, and simply plays from the soul.  He lets his music speak through him in an honest and unpretentious manner.  Listening to this album is a healing experience for anyone.  It is as honest as a recording can be.  John Coltrane created  a similar cathartic experience  in his monumental recording  “Alabama” a year later.