I’m anxiously awaiting the release of Bolden, a film about the New Orleans cornettist Buddy Bolden (1888 – 1933) who may actually have invented jazz. But since Bolden will not be released until May, and since April is Jazz Appreciation Month, now is a good time to talk about the cultural capital that jazz has recently acquired, at least in that multiply honored film, Green Book. As is often the case when a film is honored lavishly, however, Green Book has run up against a backlash. If nothing else, critics have argued that the story of the friendship between the Italian American bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and the African American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) melodramatically promotes white fantasies of reconciliation with black people. Vallelonga—known in the film’s goombah fantasies of outer-borough ethnicity as “Tony Lip”—is hired to chauffeur Shirley through the heart of the racist South on a concert tour in the early 1960s. After Tony deftly extracts Don from various life-threatening experiences, the two men come to understand and appreciate each other. A text at the end assures us that the real-life Tony and the real-life Don remained friends right up until they both died some fifty years later.
Some of this may be true, but we have since learned that the filmmakers had few if any conversations with Shirley’s family. Instead, they relied almost entirely on what Tony’s son said his father told him. For example, the Don Shirley of the film tells Tony that he and his brother are not on speaking terms. But Shirley’s relatives have said that Don was a regular visitor at his brother’s house. The real Don Shirley was extremely protective of his privacy, and rather than reveal himself during the long drives with Tony, he may have found it easier simply to declare that he was estranged from his family.
I remember Shirley’s ingenious piano concoctions from the 1960s, especially his hit record “Waterboy” with its bluesy inflections. So, early in Green Book, I was surprised when Tony turns on the car radio and Don reacts like a bemused aristocrat to Little Richard’s performance of “Lucille.” I expected him to declare in a British accent, “How curious.” Just as Tony appears to be the first person to introduce Don to fried chicken (also denied by the family), he is also the first to introduce Shirley to the felicities of black popular music. It’s as if Shirley only knew the high classical sounds that wafted up into his apartment on top of Carnegie Hall.
But Don Shirley was well-acquainted with all kinds of African American music. He recorded several LPs devoted entirely to Negro spirituals, and he knew his way around a jazz groove. As a child prodigy, he studied classical music in Russia and made his debut at age eighteen with the Boston Pops. Shirley soon learned, however, that he was the wrong color to pursue a career as a concert pianist, eventually taking the advice of impresario Sol Hurok and building his career playing popular music.
What I find most intriguing about Green Book is the high-art cachet it gives to jazz. By suggesting that Don Shirley knew nothing about black popular music, the film separates jazz from vernacular music and places it in the same category as classical music. Indeed, in his performances—and even in Green Book—Shirley would regularly begin a number with gestures toward the classical repertoire before moving seamlessly into jazz and blues. Significantly, in concert, Shirley wore a tuxedo, as did the cellist and the bassist who appeared with him.
Shirley’s recordings reveal that he was no improvisor. Everything was carefully worked out ahead of time. There is, however, no mistaking his rhythmic authority and his mastery of the jazz idiom. Appropriately, the film ends with Shirley, still in his tuxedo, triumphantly sitting in with a group of black jazz musicians at a roadhouse (with the encouragement of Tony, of course).
Green Book has to avoid any mention of the spirituals that Shirley studied and performed. That would mean he knew the African American vernacular, and it would ruin the film’s absurd but crowd-pleasing notion that Tony helped a black man get in touch with his roots. The only one of Shirley’s many records the film acknowledges is “Orpheus in the Underworld” with its double allusion to the classical.
The film’s careful separation of musical genres suggests that whatever Shirley plays must be art music. Little Richard’s “Lucille” is definitely not art, but a jazz-inflected version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk” is, especially when played by Shirley.
It’s been almost one hundred years since demure Americans could be scandalized by jazz. Decades later, in Jailhouse Rock (1957), Elvis Presley attends a party where college professors and their wives discuss “altered chords” and “dissonance” in contemporary jazz. When a well-dressed woman asks Elvis’s character if he agrees that “atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music,” he replies, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you talkin’ about.” At least in 1957, jazz belonged to the professorate. This was, of course, a few years before John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus, and other avant-gardists played what some considered obstreperous protest music. But many of us never stopped believing that jazz was serious music.
Professors have been teaching jazz for some time now, but I would like to think that jazz still has powerful connections with the popular as well as the classical. There are many problems with Green Book, but to its credit, the film does not demean any of the music that Don Shirley plays. Even the film’s stereotypical working-class Italian Americans are fine with it. Lovers of both jazz and classical music should take heart, I suppose.