Donald Shirley’s life on his Steinway
by Laura Smith
In 2018’s Academy Award–winning film Green Book, pianist and composer Dr. Donald Shirley — on a 1962 tour of the Deep South with driver Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga — refuses to play on anything other than a Steinway grand. “It’s in his written contract,” Vallelonga explains to a frazzled venue tech at one tour stop. When the technician scoffs at the idea, asking, “Does it really matter?,” Tony Lip and his hair-trigger temper respond with a backhand that leaves the tech in tears and brings a Steinway to center stage within hours. A touch of Hollywood drama? Probably. But to Dr. Donald Shirley, it really did matter.
Dr. Shirley (1927–2013) was a Steinway Artist for nearly forty years; his portrait once hung in New York City’s Steinway Hall on 57th Street alongside those of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, and other Immortals. Classically trained, with a promising debut with the Boston Pops in 1945, Shirley was infamously dissuaded from pursuing a career in classical music by impresario Sol Hurok, who told him America was not ready for a black classical pianist. Instead, Shirley took to jazz, infusing his music with a unique classical influence and becoming a household name in the 1950s and 1960s through his work with the Don Shirley Trio. An intellectual and an eccentric, Shirley lived alone for decades in one of the historic bohemian apartments above Carnegie Hall, where more than one account has him reluctantly enduring an occasional bongo jam with his neighbor Marlon Brando. Here, in this unique space peopled by artists, poets, musicians, dancers, and actors, Shirley’s primary companion was “Bess,” a black Steinway Model D concert grand.
More than ninety-five percent of the world’s concertizing pianists perform on Steinways, and all Steinway Artists are inherently allegiant to the brand. But with Shirley, the connection to Steinway went beyond mere loyalty: it was an affinity akin to devotion. To a man attuned to solitude, intense concentration, and the itinerant life of the touring performer, the Steinway became a point of artistic and personal focus.
“The center of the heliosphere of Donald Shirley’s world was his Steinway,” says David Hajdu, music critic for The Nation and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Hajdu befriended Shirley in the early 1990s and visited him at Carnegie Hall dozens of times to talk music, art, ideas. “He took enormous pride in his Steinway. He loved his instrument. Here he was living in this quirky space above Carnegie Hall, and the centerpiece of that space was the Steinway. It was like everything else was secondary, and it sent this image that in Donald’s world, everything revolved around the piano.”
Nothing but a Steinway
A highly educated academic and an ambitious thinker, Donald Shirley was hardly one to be unduly influenced by marketing-wrought brand loyalty. But there was something physical about Steinways that captured his imagination, to the extent that he was openly disdainful of any other piano.
“I think he felt about [non–Steinways] the same way he felt about nightclubs,” Hajdu says, referring to Shirley’s famous disdain for the nightclub scene that was, disappointingly to him, a frequent venue for his performances with the Don Shirley Trio. “He liked playing concerts, as opposed to nightclubs, for a number of reasons,” Hajdu says. “Some of them were sociological; for example, the way people behaved in the nightclub atmosphere was unappealing to him. These places were too noisy, too smoky for Shirley. But he also objected to the pianos in a lot of nightclubs. The pianos just weren’t good enough for him. He told me about turning down nightclub work — and he probably turned down concerts, as well — if there was a Baldwin or a Bösendorfer on the stage; he just wouldn’t do it.”
John Scoulios, now a math professor, met “Doc” in the early 1980s, when Scoulios had quit college and was working the restaurant scene in Manhattan. Shirley became a mentor to him, says Scoulios, convincing him to re-enroll in classes and frequently inviting him to the Carnegie Hall apartment, where Scoulios would recline underneath Bess and study mathematics while Shirley played.
“I felt like he was a surrogate dad to me,” Scoulios says. “And I was his surrogate son. We were very close. In later years, he’d babysit my son (in Carnegie Hall!), and we even have a great photo of him teaching my nine-month-old baby to play piano scales. I was over there every day for many years, and I think — during those times I was under the piano studying — I heard sonorities in Doc’s music that nobody else has ever heard. It was magical.”
Scoulios can corroborate that Shirley was fanatical about Steinway, and that the preference was more than a sound bite in a Hollywood biopic. “Doc always told me, ‘John, the action on this piano is bar none. You just touch it, and you can feel it. There are mechanisms in there that no other piano has.’ He was adamant about how much better the Steinway is than any other piano.”
Scoulios tells a story of going out for lunch one day with Shirley. They were headed for a greasy spoon on Broadway when they passed the piano showroom of a Steinway competitor. “Doc says, ‘Come in here, John. There’s something I want to show you,’ ” Scoulios says. “He walks into the store and acts as if he’s a customer. He sits down at a piano and he starts playing this astounding composition that he’d been working on. I’m watching the staff in the store looking around at each other. They’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’ It’s obvious he’s an incredibly gifted musician. It was very funny to watch. After he finishes, we walk out, and he looks at me, so self-satisfied. He’d proven a point. ‘Did you hear the difference?’ he demanded. And I had. ‘It’s not a Steinway,’ he said. He was so pleased with himself. I actually felt pretty bad for the folks in that store,” Scoulios says, laughing. “They had no idea who they were dealing with.”
Music and mechanics
While it’s true that Shirley’s preferences for Steinway were mostly informed by the artistic capacities of the piano, he also had a scientific and mechanical fascination with Steinway. According to Hajdu, Shirley believed that the Steinway, like no other piano, offers an opportunity for the pianist to leverage human anatomy and physiology against the world’s finest mechanical engineering.
“He was fascinated with the mechanics of the piano and their relationship to the mechanics of the human body,” Hajdu says. “There was an old book published in the 1920s by Otto Ortmann called The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique. Dr. Shirley could quote passages from this book by memory. It was all very relevant to him. He talked quite a bit about understanding the piano as a machine.”
Michiel Kappeyne — one of Shirley’s closest friends and a piano student of his for many years — agrees with Hajdu’s theory that one of the reasons Shirley was drawn to the Steinway was its ability to suit the mechanics of the artist’s body. This was particularly evident to Shirley in the Steinway action mechanism.
“Steinway’s accelerated action was very important to him,” Kappeyne says. “He was a master of joining harmony and melody. Whatever piece it was, he always thought of it in the vertical sense — harmony — and the horizontal sense — melody. He loved to highlight multiple voices at the same time, at slightly different dynamic levels, while making all those voices fit perfectly with the underlying harmony. You could call that one of his trademarks, and it goes some way towards explaining how he achieved that uniquely rich and textured sound.”
Even the piano bench was subject to Shirley’s meticulous application of science and mechanics to produce great music. “His bench was uniquely low and had his name on it on a brass plate. He took it with him on his concert travels whenever feasible,” says Kappeyne. “To him, his bench was the foundation of his body motor mechanism. It enabled him to sit close and low at the piano, with his thighs in a horizontal line. Plus, using his own bench removed a variable and provided him with more control.”
“‘Did you hear the difference?’ he demanded. And I had. ‘It’s not a Steinway,’ he said.”
Shirley was constantly, it seems, in pursuit of musical control through the manipulation of the mechanics of external forces. “He always performed wearing shoes with very low heels and thin soles,” says Kappeyne. “At home, he would practice in what he called his ‘kung fu’ slippers because they gave him the best control over the minute pedal gradations he needed. Pedaling was of supreme importance to him because it allowed him to finely control overall resonance and connect melody notes when he needed that beyond finger legato. Big, heavy shoes, or high heels for female pianists, were big no-nos for him.”
Another element of Steinway that was particularly appealing to Shirley was how the Model D produces finely matched overtone series, says Kappeyne. “This was important to him because he consciously constructed harmonies with as much overlap in the overtone series as could theoretically be achieved. It is this technique that allowed him to devise a breathtaking dynamic range, from pppp to ffff, filling the largest concert hall, without ever making a banging or unpleasant sound. When he performed with bass and cello, he mentally considered the overtone series these instruments produced and made them resonate with the piano soundboard, creating that amazing sound and dynamic range he was known for. At times he would complain about televised concerts where there were, say, eight double basses playing the exact same note. To him that was an insult to the art of music and made no sense at all. What are they doing up there playing the same note? A waste of time!”
Kappeyne and Scoulios remained close confidants of Shirley’s until his death in 2013. They both helped Dr. Shirley in the autumn of his life and orchestrated his colossal move out of Carnegie Hall. Both remarked on the astonishing sight of Shirley’s beloved piano being lifted via crane from the twelfth floor. “He bought the piano from Steinway some sixty years ago — I found the original bill of sale — and he loved his piano very much,” says Kappeyne. “To him she was ‘Bess,’ a stern taskmaster because she mercilessly revealed when he did something wrong. The day of the move, part of 57th Street had to be blocked off so that a huge crane could hoist his beloved Steinway out through the window of his Carnegie Hall apartment.”
Shirley moved of his own volition, Scoulios notes. He was not evicted, as some have claimed, when Carnegie Hall Corporation made the decision to renovate the historic apartments. “He had rent-controlled status and was able to schedule the move on his own terms,” says Scoulios. “Still, it was hard.”
Shirley’s family members have been vocal in their desire to have the true story of his musical career shared. They were less than thrilled with Green Book’s version of the events of Shirley’s 1962 tour, but confirm that he was a brilliant artist, a meticulous performer, and an exacting musician for whom nothing but a Steinway would do.
“My uncle Donald was obsessed with Steinway & Sons pianos,” says Shirley’s niece Karole Kimble. “He would play — as best he could, and if it were up to him — on nothing but a Steinway. Although he was first taught on a pipe organ, the Steinway was his best friend, confidant, and counselor for most of his life.”
Photos: getty, alamy, fred f. conrad/the new york times 2019