Pianist Don Shirley made a risky statement by touring the heart of the South

By James Linhardt

Peter Farrelly’s film “Green Book” frames Dr. Don Shirley’s concert tour of the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s as an act of conscience, a brave challenge to the status quo.

In that era, black headliners often played to whites-only houses and even radio stations were still segregated. Stereotypes and discrimination were still the rule — but from Broadway to Hollywood, many in the industry were pressing for change.

Even so, being queer, gifted and black in the Jim Crow South, as Shirley was, meant confronting all kinds of barriers. But Shirley knew that. He and other black entertainers had long confronted indignities and threats — and not just in the South.

A 1952 Variety piece about the singer/dancer Josephine Baker noted that in Las Vegas black headliners were often segregated. Some stars managed to stay in the Vegas hotels where they played, but Variety wrote that others “must shuttle back and forth between hotels and the Westside where a couple of apartment motels exist for Negro entertainers’ housing.”

Baker astonished management at the Last Frontier Hotel by enforcing a clause in her contract saying she would not perform for a segregated audience. The local NAACP arranged a table of six black patrons nightly. It was a token concession for the hotel, but Baker felt when the hotel saw that white patrons wouldn’t flee and black customers wouldn’t disrupt the refined atmosphere, it would remove the justifications for discrimination.

In 1962, around the time of Shirley’s tour, Variety ran a front page article, “Dixie Film’s Desegregation ‘Pace,’” reporting that big-city movie theaters would integrate ahead of those in small towns. “Fear continues of the hysterical rabble and of angry 
incidents,” said the story. “Business elements shudder lest bitter images emerge.” The chamber of commerce may have worried about a PR hit, but black entertainers faced that anger personally.

Quincy Jones, who knew Don Shirley, hosted a tastemaker event on behalf of “Green Book” at Ysabel Restaurant in Los Angeles, where he told the gathering, “I did that ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ tour through the South when I was with the Lionel Hampton band, and let me tell you … It was no picnic. And we were a band.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do it alone with just a driver.”

Though that driver, Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Valle­longa (played by Viggo Mortensen in the film) was also to serve as Shirley’s bodyguard, the company of a white man proved scant protection. “[The tour] was dangerous,” says Michael Kappeyne, who was a piano student of Shirley’s and his longtime friend. “It was only six years earlier that Nat King Cole was almost lynched onstage when he attempted a performance in the Deep South.”

Kappeyne remembers Shirley’s stories about the trip. “There was a police car that followed them all the way down from Pennsylvania, through three states, and they finally gave him a bogus traffic ticket for a speeding violation, even though there was no speed limit.”

Filmmaker John Singleton observes that Mahershala Ali portrays Shirley as a man “who eschews all pretensions of what black men were prejudiced to be defined as.” That itself was an eye-opener for some, including Tony. Don Shirley’s example helps him overcomes his own prejudices.

And that was the point. Late in “Green Book,” cellist Oleg Malakhov tells Tony, “Genius isn’t enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” Kappeyne agrees with that sentiment. “[The tour] was really an act of courage, rather than an act of protest,” he says. “It’s not that [Shirley] wanted to make a point about being black and going through the Deep South. It was more, ‘I want to share my music.’ He was pretty aware of his talent and skill, and what it did to people’s emotions.”

He was also standing up to a system that had stereotyped him as a jazzman, not the classical pianist he trained to be. Ali observes, “Dr. Shirley is that person who has a vision for what their capacity and potential is, and because of the times, has had to endure a life of compromise, not seeing their talent fully come into fruition.…

“So how does that ever change? How does someone ever reach their potential if the ideal is that you will fail at something before you’re even given the opportunity? I don’t think we’ve gotten over that as a culture.”