Living in Portugal, we’re not as intimately connected with the Hollywood scene as we used to be. We’d heard of the movie Green Book but didn’t really know much about it. Something about a white guy hired as driver for a black musician in the segregation days Then it showed up at our local art theater after receiving five Oscar nominations; so, three of us expat couples trooped over to see it.
It was only a couple days before seeing it that I read the musician’s name was Don Shirley. The name rang a tiny bell in my brain. I’ve been a jazz fan ever since my teen years. It was jazz that saved the music world from the likes of “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?”; and, merged with the blues, was a precursor to rock ‘n roll.
Having listened to a fair amount of jazz in my teens, I figured the name was just one of many I’d heard in those days. But then, as it whirled around in my head, it seemed more and more familiar. In fact, the more I repeated “Don Shirley”, the more I warmed to the name, emotionally.
While watching the movie, which by the way was as excellent as cranked up to be, an image formed in my mind. I had a big old cardboard packing box in those days in which I stashed my personal LP collection. I had that box of records from my early teens through college and beyond. That, a suitcase, and a white canvas laundry bag were my entire inventory of possessions. I was a minimalist before anyone could pronounce the word.
I remember reading an article somewhere about Don Shirley and the release of one of his albums, which impressed me. Something about his being a groundbreaker in jazz and the complexity of his sound. I then scoured my local record stores until I found it. In my memory, I imagine the exact place it sat in my LP box.
When we got back from the theater, I went online to a list of his albums. The name grabbed me when I saw it – Water Boy, released in 1965; I was 16. Barbara and I sat on the sofa and listened to it on YouTube. He did a couple versions of it on different albums; but, in the title album, he took the simple old blues tune through a series of arrangements, making it sound like a pop song, a schmaltzy ballad, a semi-classical etude, gradually increasing the volume and tempo until pounding it out, like plantation hands stomping out of the fields waving fists and carrying torches. At the end, he brought it down — quiet, subversive, threatening.
It took me back to those days growing up in Atlanta I hadn’t thought of in years. I remember the old white columned mansions and the azalea gardens and being sixteen again, and having the excitement of life ahead of me instead of behind.
But it was also when times were changing, of which even a privileged white kid was made aware. Even as a young child with family moving from Chester, Pennsylvania, I remember the signs in public buildings saying “Colored rest room”, and wondering what color they were. I remember the full page newspaper headlines and photos in the Atlanta Constitution of police on horseback running down freedom marchers. From later on, I remember the crowds lining Auburn Avenue as MLK’s funeral cortege came by. Joining a march one night at college in Athens, Georgia, to protest a rash of church burnings in black neighborhoods, looking across the police line at guys dressed in white sheets.
Mostly, though, I remember feeling like everything could be fixed. Now I know better. But, for a moment, that sensation, faith, confidence, came over me again. It was nice to feel that way. Listening to Don Shirley.