Master Of The Suave
My Uncle Mike loved Jazz and was a collector of Jazz records. For some reason, we never got a chance for a good, long listening session together, but I grew up looking at the spines of the Impulse records he had collected in his den, right next to an ancient solid state wall mount stereo system and turntable. I also remember him telling me about his long talks with Billie Holiday, as she sat in the waiting room of her psychiatrist in San Francisco (my uncle was a doctor in the nearby office). He was very much into early swing near the end of his life, annotating his collection, hoping to eventually record his 78s onto cassette so he could listen to them more easily. We both looked for a needle that would fit his player to accomplish said task, but it was not to be.
Upon my Uncle’s death, I inherited that part of his record collection that his kids did not want and as much of his tape collection as I could carry out the door. His tapes he stored in homemade wood holders. At least 100 homemade cassettes of various artists (the Artie Shaw one holds an amazing collection). I took the choicest case-full and they are in the car. His records: wow, a true treasure. Coltrane, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins. Cal Tjader and Lois Armstrong.
And then, there were the Don Shirley records. I had never heard of the Jamaican-born Don Shirley…this ultra-suave and sweet pianist from the fifties and sixties brought to fame by Arthur Fiedler and Duke Ellington. Mostly playing as a duo, with a bass accompanyment, his record covers looked very stylish and intriguing, but upon first listen they seemed too light and lethargic. They went to my one-away-from-get-rid-of-pile, and stayed there like an inmate on death row.
Then one evening, about a year ago during a time of slight heaviness, I caught myself staring at ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD. The haunting painting showing-off on the cover looked like a Magnasco, and then I realized Shirley had done it himself. The record was an improvised take on the Orpheus legend, and its somber, beautiful coloring carried me through the evening and onto the next day. The other two records of my uncles are just below equal stellar footing and paint a picture through an an ethereal region of Jazz much as Josh White painted his Blues sound-aqua during the same time period. Shirley's piano playing flows like organized ocean waves, weaving wonderful melodies through the tides of ethereal tonal movements.
As I write on this misty Outer Richmond night, the air inside my apartment is fog-fuzzy and the dimmed light from the moon is bouncing warmly off the molecules surrounding it. I am listening to Shirley's Improvisations With Duo on Cadence, and he is as silly smooth as ever. But groovy, and pacifying, like a candle, as the room fills with warmth.
I recently found his e-mail on his home page and chatted with a student of his. Mr. Shirley has been in and out of good health recently, but he is most definitely still around and still plays (at least in his New York apartment). The painting of Orpheus In The Underworld is on his wall. He loves getting messages from fans.
Thank you Uncle Mike for such a wonderful gift. The best sort of gift: a new appreciation for an artist I had never known…and many of his great records, that I never have need to search for!