Entertainment

A Jamaican's story

Green Book tells tale of Rock-born pianist

By RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, December 09, 2018

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Last Thursday came word that the critically acclaimed film Green Book copped a total of five Golden Globe Award nominations.

Green Book is a comedy-drama about a tour of the American deep south in the 1960s by African American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley, played by Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who served as Shirley's driver and bodyguard. The film is based on real events involving the Jamaican-born Shirley.

Shirley who died on April 6, 2013, aged 86, was born on January 29, 1927 in Kingston. He was introduced to music by his mother and gave his first public performance at the age of three. At nine years of age Shirley moved to the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, where he studied piano and music theory with Mittolovski at Leningrad Conservatory of Music and later at Catholic University in Washington, DC. He would go on to appear as a soloist with several world-renowned orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the National Symphony, and the NBC Symphony. His compositions have been performed by the London Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

According to reports, Shirley played his first professional gig at age 18 with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1945. He would then go on to develop a unique musical genre of his own blending jazz, negro spirituals and classical music.

According to musicologist and curator of the Jamaica Music Museum, Herbie Miller, it was based on his recommendation that Shirley, who was the holder of three Phds, was awarded the Musgrave Bronze Medal in 2012.

“For me, like Ozzie Russell in classical music, Bob Marley in pop, and Joe Harriott in jazz, Dr Don Shirley exemplified the highest standard of musical creativity for a Jamaican artiste.”

Miller further noted that Shirley last performed in Jamaica in 1956.

Green Book was directed by Peter Farrelly from a screenplay written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Vallelonga's son Nick Vallelonga, based on interviews with his father and Shirley, as well as letters his father wrote to his mother. The film is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, informally called the Green Book, a mid-20th-century guidebook for African American travellers, written by Victor Hugo Green to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.

The film had its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where it won the People's Choice Award. At the Golden Globe Awards the film will go up for trophies in the following categories: Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Mortensen), Best Supporting Actor (Ali), Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

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