Authentic stories revealed


Edited e-book went through a makeover.
Authors Evelin Täht and Atro Mikkola.
Cover design by Evelin Täht.

“His virtuosity is worthy of the Gods.”

Igor Stravinsky
Donald Shirley, 1977. Picture by Juri Taht.

Was the film Green Book based on a true story?

The movie Green Book was named after The Negro Motorist Green Book. Though the film is an idealized take on the segregation and racism issue and it isn’t a detailed history lesson about the travel guide Green Book itself. Indeed, the Don Shirley Trio did tour the nation in the 1960s and Donald had a driver named Tony Lip. But the film is not a documentary and some facts are concentrated and moulded to fit the narrative and make it more compelling to the audience.

Is Green Book real?

It is a real thing. The travel guide Green Book was compiled by a postman, Victor Hugo Green, after whom its name was derived. It was designed as a road map for African Americans during the segregation era when travelling across the country. The first edition was published in 1936 and over the years it grew its volume as new travel destinations emerged- by 1962 there were more than two million copies of the guide in circulation and it was sold in Esso gas stations. Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, publication ceased in 1967.

Who is Dr Shirley in Green Book?

Donald Shirley was a Jamaican-American composer and pianist, born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida. He was a musical prodigy, starting piano lessons already at the age of two. Contrary to public belief, he never studied at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music in the Soviet Union (book A Rediscovered Trio). He was a trained concert pianist, though he was denied the opportunity to play on the big stages because of the colour of his skin. “Well, eventually I did have the concert career I trained my whole life for, although I did have to go through the backdoor of the nightclubs first.” (Josef Astor Let It Shine: Donald Shirley in his Own Words). He spoke various languages and was an exceptional painter. He performed with the Don Shirley Trio. Recorded his solo, duo and trio albums for Cadence and later for Columbia Records and in 1971 album Don Shirley Point of View for Atlantic Records.

Who played the piano in Green Book?

Mahershala Ali took lessons from pianist Kris Bowers, who does all the playing for Ali in the film.

What was the controversy over Green Book?

Shirley’s family publicly criticized the film as a misrepresentation of their relative, saying there was more wrong than there was right in the film. Dr Shirley’s last living brother, psychologist Dr Maurice Shirley even called it a “symphony of lies”. Maurice said that Donald was in close contact with his family. On the topic of Donald’s friendship with the driver, Tony, the family noted: “It was an employer-employee relationship- the only kind of relationship that he [Dr Shirley] ever had with any of the people he worked with, including the cellist and the bassist.” Juri Taht, who was a long time cellist in Don Shirley Trio agreed with this statement (the book A Rediscovered Trio) by saying that indeed he and Donald were simply long-time colleagues. Juri didn’t confirm or deny the friendship between Donald and Tony but he agreed with Dr Maurice that Donald was indeed in close contact with his family. Juri himself was frustrated by the fact that he was made a Russian in the film.

Was Dr Don Shirley married?

Don Shirley got married to Jean C. Hill on December 23, 1952, but later the couple divorced. In the documentary Let it Shine Dr Shirley commented on his divorce: “It had nothing to do with love, it had nothing to do with lust. It had to do with the fact that here I had an opportunity to have a career. I was dead set on being what I had been training all my life to be.” Donald never had any children. Music was Dr Shirley’s only true love.

What happened to Don Shirley?

Dr Shirley was a rent-controlled tenant in Carnegie Studios above Carnegie Hall for more than half a century, until 2010, when he and all the other longtime residents were evicted from their homes. He died of complications from heart disease, at the age of 86 (April 6, 2013). His brother, Dr Maurice Shirley, fulfilled Donald’s final wish to have his body donated to the Anatomical Donation Program at NYU School of Medicine, which specializes in brain-mapping people with special talents.

Did the film Green Book win an Oscar?

In fact, the film won three Oscars at the 91st Academy Awards on 24 February 2019. It received the Best Picture 2019 award and the award for Original Screenplay. Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

“Lullaby in Birdland” was reconstructed for the film Green Book. The original here is a good example of the mastery and skills of the piano virtuoso (Richard Davis on the bass). For the film soundtrack, it was written by George Shearing and George David Weiss and performed by Kris Bowers.

Video from the Wet Bird YouTube channel, where the music plays over a slide show of the images of C.E.Newland.

Film Green Book vs the true story

The film Green Book tells the story of the friendship between pianist Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his personal driver, Tony (Viggo Mortensen), along with their adventures during a concert tour of the American Deep South in 1962. It focuses more on Tony´s personal development and growth.

The film was inspired by the true story, but it was not a documentary. Juri Taht was a trio member for over twenty-five years and, by the time the movie premiered, he was the only surviving movie character prototype. As a great coincidence, trio members Donald and Kenneth, as well as Tony Vallelonga, the driver, all died in 2013: Tony in January, Donald in April, and Kenneth Fricker in July. Juri´s long journey came to an end in November 2022.

Tony Lip and Don Shirley actually could have enjoyed a good relationship, because nobody else knows how they spent their time during the long car rides,” Juri recalled. Donald didn’t have a driver’s license and so he needed a driver to drive him around. Juri himself saw Tony in Donald’s life only briefly because the driver didn’t work very long for Donald. And after that Juri never saw or heard of Tony again. This is why the friendship portrayed in the movie was a surprise to Juri. He himself had always thought it had been more like an employer-employee one, with Tony being just one of the many drivers Donald had. That Tony was, for Donald, just a good acquaintance, one of many. In his younger years, Donald was a lonely genius, Juri didn’t see him forming serious friend-relations. He had time only for his music.

Don Shirley Trio toured all over the country, and Canada. In reality, the tour at the end of 1962 was in the north, not in the deep south as it was depicted in the movie. The tour of the south took place in 1966, though even then not as far to the south, or to the same places as in the movie.

But why was Juri then made a Russian in the movie? Probably nobody even took the time to find out who he really was and what language he spoke, assuming that every Juri is a Russian. In fact, Donald and Juri didn’t speak a word of Russian in real life to each other, because Juri himself didn’t know the language and Donald knew that. Also, Donald had never attended the Leningrad Conservatory of Music in the Soviet Union. Juri felt dismayed by the fact that he was made a Russian in the movie because he was a refugee of World War II, who had to leave his homeland of Estonia to escape the mass murders of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Juri’s amazing life is preserved in the book Stargazing.

Since the 2019 Oscars, so much time had been passed that today the movie Green Book is already widely available for viewing on Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc. But more about Donald Shirley and his music can be read in a newly edited e-book that went through a makeover.

A real-life Don Shirley Trio (Juri Taht, Donald Shirley, Kenneth Fricker) with Mrs Barbara Hofferber-General Chairman, South Bay Community Concerts Association. Picture by Al Frederic.
Juri and Donald, August 1960. Both pictures are from Juri’s personal collection.

A forgotten trio, rediscovered by the film Green Book

E-book A Rediscovered Trio contains true stories from two men who witnessed the brilliant and complicated mind of piano virtuoso Donald Shirley: Estonian cellist Juri Taht, a long-time colleague, and the maestro’s apprentice, Finnish double bass player Atro Mikkola.

Juri and Atro knew Donald at completely different points of his life—they only met each other in 2019, after the Hollywood movie Green Book was released. In 1957, when Juri’s path first crossed with Don’s, the men were nearly in their thirties and they enjoyed a long and quite casual professional relationship as colleagues. In 1983, after Juri’s new job took him away from New York, he soon lost touch with Don. Atro knew the mature and sophisticated version of Dr Shirley, as his music student. Atro met Donald in 1995 and, after moving back to his native Finland in 1997, he stayed in touch with the maestro—making yearly visits to New York and regular long phone calls—for the last seventeen years of Shirley’s life.

In April 2013, when Donald Shirley died, Michiel C. Kappeyne (Donald’s heir and protégé) wrote a bio-obituary, included in this book. Michiel’s writing has never before been published completely in its original state because, at the time of his passing, Donald wasn’t considered to be famous enough.

Though the edited e-book contains a lesser number of illustrative material, it is by far a more enjoyable reading experience than the primary book.

Edited e-book went through a makeover.
Authors Evelin Täht and Atro Mikkola.
Cover design by Evelin Täht.

Click on the universal book link below to find your favourite digital platform or bookshop to acquire the e-book at a good price today. Also, check if your favourite subscription-based reading platform or library has the e-book.

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