MOST countries have a 'Tomb of the Unknown Soldier' to honour those whose achievements were heroic but forgotten. When things are tight financially, people don't want to bother with anything they regard as esoteric. However, we should consider erecting a statue to those Jamaicans whose heroic accomplishments are largely unknown and unrecognised by the vast majority of Jamaicans.
Pianist and composer, Don Shirley who died on April 6, 2013, aged 86, is one such Jamaican. He started playing the piano at age three. This child prodigy made his professional debut with the Boston Pops Orchestra at 18, performing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat minor in June, 1945. As a black man in the 1940s, there were limited opportunities to make a living as a classical concert pianist and he devoted himself to his own unique genre of classical music and jazz. He eventually (in the late 1960s) made unreleased recordings of Rachmaninoff with the New York Philharmonic and Khachaturian with the Minneapolis Symphony. He, however, became renowned for his renditions of contemporary composers such as George Gershwin whose Rhapsody in Blue he performed at La Scala in Milan, as well as his Concerto in F, accompanying the Alvin Ailey dancers, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His playing was greatly admired by Igor Stravinsky, Sarah Vaughan and
Duke Ellington, whom he played with at Carnegie Hall.
Born Donald Walbridge Shirley, January 29, 1927 in Kingston, Jamaica, Don Shirley was introduced to music by his mother and gave his first public performance at the age of three. He studied at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music and 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.
His brilliance was not confined to music as besides holding a doctorate in music, he held a doctorate in psychology and a doctorate in liturgy. Dr Shirley also spoke eight languages fluently. He made many recordings which are still available. They encompass the classics, jazz standards, gospel, love songs, show tunes and spirituals. His biggest hit, his own composition Water Boy is best heard on Don Shirley Trio where he is accompanied by cello and bass. His unique blend of classical and jazz improvisation remains one of the most distinct keyboard sounds ever. All was great from this virtuoso.
His life proves once again what Jamaicans are capable of and is an inspiration to all aspiring musicians. In the future, let us honour our Jamaican greats before they pass on as did Dr Don Shirley, hailed abroad but with no accolade from the land of his birth.