Green Book
Melissa Ramirez Ordonez (NBCUniversal)

Don Shirley And 'The Green Book' Are The Historical Anchors Of Mahershala Ali's New Segregation-Era Film

'Green Book' tells the story of Don Shirley, an African American pianist, traveling to the American South during segregation.

Green Book tells the story of Dr. Don Shirley, an African American pianist, traveling to the American South during segregation.


​In theaters this week (Nov. 16), Green Book has already garnered critical acclaim and interest from the public by winning the coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) beating the box office hit, A Star is Born. This film is the first drama for director Peter Farrelly, best known for his comedies Dumb And Dumber and There’s Something About Mary.

Green Book, a dramatic shift from Farrelly’s previous work, tells the story of Donald Walbridge Shirley, professionally known as Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black classical pianist touring the American South with his Italian-American driver and bouncer, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). While the film is rife with comedic moments as they form an unlikely friendship, the underlying storyline is based on real-life experiences with segregation in the South during the ‘60s.

For many, though, this film serves as an introduction to not only what The Green Book was, but the real-life challenges faced by African Americans who relied on it as a guide when navigating their way through American interstates. For Shirley, this book played an integral role during his tour throughout the American South in 1962. To fill in some of the nuances of the story that may be missed in two hours and 10 minutes of screen time, it is important to understand the impact of both Don Shirley as a musician and the actual The Green Book before seeing the film.

The film begins with Don Shirley’s search for a driver and bouncer to accompany him on a tour. Shirley was a highly acclaimed pianist and composer who developed his own signature musical style that was a melange of classical, jazz and popular music. It was his musical prowess that brought him recognition from audiences filled with the social elite, celebrities and even presidents on occasion, who gathered to hear him play the classical arrangements in a not-so-classical way. He was known for adding his own flair to the music and was a true virtuoso in every sense of the word.

Throughout his career, Shirley composed three symphonies, two piano concertis, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on Finnegans Wake and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, and a number of other covers of popular classical music.

Born to Jamaican parents, Don Shirley was a musical prodigy first taught to play the piano at two and a half by his mother and began performing by the age of three. By 10, Shirley had mastered most of the standard concert repertoire studying under organist Conrad Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and made his debut at the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor at the age of 18.

Sometime in his 20s, Shirley was advised by impresario Sol Hurok that American audiences were not yet ready to see a “colored” pianist on the concert stage and that it was a better choice for him to pursue a career in popular music or jazz. Instead of letting this deter him, Shirley began playing in nightclubs and invented his own musical genre as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio (along with a bassist and a cellist), which played popular European and American music with a classical structure. In a 1982 New York Times interview, Shirley spoke about the evolution of his musical style over the years, stating that “The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that's all I have ever tried to do."

Shirley’s first original composition was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. He then began touring the world and was invited to play for the Haitian government at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince, with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra Washington, to name only a few. At this time, he is said to have averaged some 95 concerts a year while composing symphonies and pieces for the piano, quartets and piano concerts along the way. He held a Doctorate of Music, Doctorate of Psychology (University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa) and Doctorate in Liturgical Arts, and was fluent in eight languages.

Shirley reached the peak of his popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, recording 16 albums including one on which “Water Boy,” his single with the Don Shirley Trio, reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. He developed a friendship with fellow pianist Duke Ellington and was known for performing his music, on-stage alongside Ellington and in whose honor he wrote “Divertimento for Duke by Don” in 1974. But it was his appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Show that transformed him into a national sensation and sparked interest in touring all corners of the United States.

In 1962, he enlisted not only a driver but the use of The Negro Motorist Green Book to help navigate his way through an area of the country that still had segregation laws. Developed by a postal worker named Victor Hugo Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book was first published in 1936 in Harlem as an aid to help his community navigate their way through New York. It was inspired by similar guides created in Jewish communities to distribute list establishments that were safe to visit. The guide was updated annually for 30 years and expanded to include information on all 50 states and eventually information on airline and cruise ship journeys to places like Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.

By the mid-20th century, the car was synonymous with the joy of travel, as the great American road trip was on the rise. But for African-Americans living in the Jim Crow era, navigating the open road wasn’t without its roadblocks. Segregation was still legal in the South, which meant that most motels, restaurants, service stations and even public restrooms were not areas where all travelers could go. "Sundown towns" and “sundown laws” we’re also still quite common in the Caucasian municipalities in the South, where people of color were banned from a certain jurisdiction and had to leave by nightfall.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.” —excerpt from forward in the 1948 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book

During these years, The Green Book became an indispensable resource for traveling African-Americans to share their knowledge and create safe driving routes in unfamiliar areas the United States. By the early 1940s, The Green Book included thousands of establishments—either black-owned or verified by other travelers to be non-discriminatory—from across the country.

In its prime, The Green Book sold upwards of 15,000 copies a year and through a sponsorship deal with Standard Oil, The Green Book was available for purchase at Esso gas stations across the country. Not only was The Green Book a resourceful guide for black travelers, but it also became a catalyst for black entrepreneurship promoting black-owned restaurants and motels and helped members of the community transcend socio-economic barriers into the middle class.

In preparing for the film, Mahershala Ali was surprised to realize that The Green Book was a positive thing for African-Americans. During the 1950s and ‘60s, a number of African-Americans migrated from the South to Chicago and California but often families would take road trips for weddings, funerals and family reunions.

​But the reality was that at this time, it didn’t matter if you were Duke Ellington, Don Shirley or the family down the road; the laws of segregation applied to all African-Americans.

During a Q&A session after its TIFF premiere (Sept. 11), Ali told an anecdote from the filming of Green Book. He met a man who recalled that the popular motel used in a scene was the very same establishment frequented by musical legends Little Richard, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ray Charles and more. The highly-recommended motel was just inches away from the freeway and nothing to note in today’s standard for travel. It was the only place African-Americans could stay.

​In 1964, the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks and other public places. Shortly after, The Green Book ceased production and retired to a memory of this time often found tucked away in your grandparent’s attic or basement or at the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which has digitized its collection.

Today, we still see contemporary African-American communities rallying together to share community resources. Travel Noire, an online resource for black travelers to share their stories and practical advice, is a modern iteration of the communal resource that was The Green Book.

“There are things that are unique to our experiences as black travelers, and those stories deserve to be told,” Travel Noire’s managing editor Nadia Harris says via email. “Not only does it provide a roadmap to travel success; this community lets you know that you're not the only person who experienced those long stares in China or that the overwhelming sense of love and pride you felt in Tanzania was indeed real. You are not alone. We've traveled to these same places and we've felt those same things.”

Whether we are in 1962 or 2018, finding a community to share their insights in exploring new places has always been (and will always be) what holds the black American community together through travel.

READ MORE: Mahershala Ali Officially Joins The Cast Of ‘True Detective’ Season 3

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Saba's Rhymes Mean A Lot But John Walt Day Means More

“Act like ya’ll know, man. This a holiday,” boasted Frsh Waters, the co-founder of Chicago collective Pivot Gang and the opener of the second annual John Walt Day concert. It's Thanksgiving weekend and while families are gathered around the dinner table, lovers and supporters of Pivot Gang–comprised of Saba, MFn Melo, Waters, SqueakPIVO and a few more–filled the spaces of the city's Concord Music Hall to keep up a holiday tradition of their own.

With a newly-grown fro, Waters enters the stage with no introduction, a contrast from initial mic stand-clasping nervousness during the inaugural John Walt Day, launched at House of Blues Chicago in 2017. Walt Jr., the cousin of Saba, was killed last year and is the sole inspiration for the rapper's John Walt Foundation that brings the arts to children in the city.

The concert is a resounding tradition that his Pivot Gang brothers don’t plan to break anytime soon, with anticipation flooding the city each Thanksgiving weekend and a simultaneous celebration of Walt’s birthday on November 25th. The concert is just a piece of the loving puzzle Saba, Waters and the rest of the group created to keep his legacy alive.

With repeated crouching and soulful backing by Chicago band, The Oh’My’s, Waters regained balance after kneeling on an uneven speaker, referring to the crowd as "Church,” a christening that he echoes on the ending of "GPS" a feature from Saba’s well-received debut album Bucket List Project.

 

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Happy 26th @dinnerwithjohn Long Live my niqqa Johnny 📷 @bda.photo

A post shared by Westside Cat (@frshwaters) on Nov 25, 2018 at 11:37am PST

Saba may have dropped the stellar sophomore project, Care For Me this year, but the continuation of John Walt Day means more. Sold out for its second year in a row with 1,400 in attendance, Pivot Gang house-DJ Squeak Pivot blares "Scenario" by A Tribe Called Quest as the crowd multiplies before his booth. Avid fans gather in all creases of Concord Music Hall, especially on the second floor, where a merch stand resides exclusively for John Walt items. A haloed painting of Walt (or DinnerWithJohn as listeners knew him best), sits next to an assortment of buttons and t-shirts, as a guest brings a newly finished painting of Walt to the show.

Between sets, the crowd roared for cuts by Chicagoans Ravyn Lenae and Noname, who’s Room 25 track "Ace" is cut abruptly before MfnMelo takes the stage. With orchestration by Care For Me co-producer Dae Dae and harpist Yomi, Melo flowed through "Can’t Even Do It" and briefly spoke to the crowd about Thanksgiving, inviting attendees with leftover pies to meet him after the show.

Strutting to Ariana Grande's kiss-off anthem "thank u, next," The Plastics EP rapper Joseph Chilliams poses freely, cloaked in a light pink teddy bear coat. “I made this song because there aren’t a lot of black people [in Mean Girls]. I realized that the fourth time,” Chilliams joked before performing "Unfriendly Black Hotties."

Joined by four-year-old Snacks Pivot, John Walt’s mother Nachelle Pugh pinpoints her nephew’s curiosity of joining his older cousins Saba and Joseph Chilliams as their miniature hype-man.

 

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John Walt Day It didn’t even feel real, so much love in the room. For the encore they usually yell the artist name or one more song or something like that. But on this night they yelled “LONG LIVE JOHN WALT”. I wish this could be everyday. I wish I could play you this new shit we just did. I wish you were here. Love you @dinnerwithjohn look at this coat” lmao 💗💗💗💗 📸 by my shooter @notryan_gosling

A post shared by Joseph Chilliams (@josephchilliams) on Nov 26, 2018 at 3:29pm PST

“It’s like Walter jumped into his body and he’s coming back through this kid," she said of the toddler's enthusiasm. "He’s studied Saba, he’s studied Joseph, and he’ll say 'Auntie, can I use your phone?' So he’d use my phone and watch the boys’ videos on YouTube. Joseph is a person that the kids look at and say ‘He’s so fun,’ and [Snacks] wants to be like him. Everything that they do, [Snacks] is studying them.”

Pugh credits Young Chicago Authors for sparking her son’s musical pursuits, with guidance by poet Kevin Coval. “Kevin mentored him until the day he passed. I really love and respect someone that can just work with kids and give them a place to express themselves creatively,” Pugh said. “Working towards a goal of creating something that I know [Walt] wanted to do, and to help others in the same token, that gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

The stage then transformed into a resting kitchen with illuminating lights on the bottom of side-by-side counters, with Care for Me co-producers Dae Dae and Daoud behind their respective keyboards. Once settled, Saba rushed the stage to perform "Busy," with a special appearance by singer theMIND. The pulse of the venue throbbed as Saba took brief pauses to talk intimately to the crowd. “I lost a lot of people close to me,” he said. “A song like "Stoney" is such a celebration of life. It’s crazy to think how long ago that sh*t was. John was still alive.”

As Saba diverted into memories of Walt’s life, Nachelle recalled the album listening event for Care For Me. “Saba wouldn’t let me listen to it. He didn’t even tell me that he was working on it until it got really close [to the album’s release]," she said. "Then, he warned me about "Prom/King." I think he was thinking about letting me listen to it by myself at first, but then he thought about it like ‘Nah, I’m not gonna do that while she’s by herself, let me just let her listen to it while she’s with everybody else.’ That was an easier way to break it to me, so I wouldn’t really break down.”

Saba capered into "Prom/King," but performing the heart-tugging ode to Walt was a first, even after embarking on his 2018 Care For Me tour.

“I didn’t know he was gonna do that. I didn’t think that he’d ever be able to do that. I don’t think he thought he’d be able to do that,” Pugh explained. “I don’t know if anybody captured the expressions, but I think he was in tears and he was just fighting through it. We went through this fight together on the day we found out what happened with Walt. When he got finished, he sat down, turned around and he looked at me and I’m like 'We did it.'”

Even with "Prom/King" being the most grief-stricken track on Care For Me, Nachelle revealed that the most poignant song about her son was "Heaven All Around Me," realizing the message just months after the album’s release. “I was like, 'Walter wrote that song through Saba,' she said. "That’s the song that gets me the most off Care For Me. I don’t think [Saba] intentionally did so, but it just put so much power behind "Prom/King" because you see what happened. He told a story.”

The storytelling of Walt’s legacy was fulfilled throughout John Walt Day, from Joseph Chilliams doing a comedic, warbled rendition of "Ordinary People," Walt’s favorite song to play on the aux cord, to the entire Pivot Gang reuniting to perform their ensemble track "Blood" for the first time. Walt’s presence was unwavering, with remaining Pivot Gang members continuing to carry his eternal flame.

“This year’s show, the passion was a little bit stronger, because at the time we did last year’s show, I think we were all still in denial, like 'We’re gonna wake up from this dream’ type of thing.' Pugh said. “I think we accepted the fact that [Walt’s] not coming back. They wanted to go as hard as possible because they were doing this for him.”

 

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JOHN WALT DAY was so beautiful. We gotta find a bigger venue for next year. I made so many new friends. Pivot tape up next 💪🏽🔥

A post shared by Joseph Chilliams (@josephchilliams) on Dec 1, 2018 at 5:15pm PST

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15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

Hip-hop may have become the Nielsen Music-declared most dominant music genre, but let's not overlook the strides R&B (including all its many sub-genres and cousin genres) have taken on the airwaves and within the culture in this year alone.

While persistent naysayers keep peddling the tired argument that "R&B is dead," the most recent news cycle has proven the exact opposite, as talks of a supposed King of R&B dominated discussions both on- and offline. Jacquees' lofty declaration notwithstanding, there's no denying that there are ample songs swimming around the 'Net from talented vocalists killing it within the genre.

For those looking to satiate rhythm and blues earworms—and in no particular order—VIBE compiled a list of the 15 bonafide R&B songs of 2018 (or at least ones that fall within the genre's orbit) that pulled us into our feelings each and every time we pressed play.

READ MORE: Let Jacquees Tell It, He’s The Jodeci Of This R&B Game

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Ian Reid

Let Jacquees Tell It, He’s The Jodeci Of This R&B Game

Rodriquez Jacquees Broadnax doesn’t want to be the bad guy of R&B. He says this with a sinister, yet warm smile. With year-end debates taking over social circles, Jacquees wants all the flowers for his glowing debut, 4275. “I ain't never had a year like this, I got one of those careers and lives that keep going like this,” he says, as he raises his iced out wrist to draw his progression. “It keeps going up, my sh*t just keeps going up.”

At 24 years old, the singer knows a thing or two about the ever-changing genre. Nearly half of his life has been dedicated to music, specifically to quiet storm-like sounds that now take on new meaning in our adult love lives. He’s hibernated under the radar for some time with his 2014 debut EP 19 and released gentle falsettos and big name features with Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign and Trey Songz along the way.

But between his accolades, he’s been condemned for his favorable “Quemix” of Ella Mai’s “Trip” and now, his self-proclaimed status of “The King of R&B” for his generation.

"I just wanna let everybody know that I'm the king of R&B right now," Jacquees said in an Instagram post on Sunday (Dec. 9). "For this generation, I understand who done came and who done did that and that and that, but now it's my time. Jacquees, the king of R&B.”

R&B artists like J. Holiday and Pleasure P shared their two cents on the matter while the game’s most elite like Tank, Tyrese and Eric Bellinger dropping stacks of knowledge on the gift of consistency, respect, and talent. But Jacquees has these things and then some with legends like Jon B., Donell Jones and Jermaine Dupri in his corner. Despite quick reactions from his peers, Jacquees is confident in nature and proud of his space in the game.

“I think I'm the leader though, as far as males go, I think I'm the number one,” he tells VIBE, just days before his “King of R&B” comments went viral. “You're talking about R&B young dudes who understand who goin’ [at] it, [but] who are they going to put in the front? I believe everyone will say Jacquees.”

Jacquees’ music is just a branch of what R&B has evolved into. Over the years, artists like SZA, H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, The Internet, Miguel and many more have flipped the genre on its head by churning out music that not only speaks to the soul, but to their vocal abilities. Successful R&B records aren’t confined to rap guest verses and traditional instruments now take center stage. But Jacquees sits in an interesting space seeing as his style caters to a grey area of folks who just heard their first Monica album yesterday and now appreciate a good nayhoo like the rest of us.

With hopes to release his sophomore album in February 2019, Jacquees chats with VIBE about his confidence, making 7275 and why he’s the perfect leader for R&B today.

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What have you learned about yourself as a human and an artist in 2018?

Jac

quees: This was my biggest year. I made the most money I’ve ever made. I dropped my album and was able to take care of my family. I ain’t never had a year like this and I thank God for that. I got one of those careers and lives that keep going like this, (slowly raises a hand to the ceiling) It keeps going up, my sh*t just keeps going up.

I think I learned about my whole self in 2018. Being that it was my biggest year, I went through a lot of stuff personally, but I think the biggest thing for me was listening to other people but also trusting myself. I have a strong mind so more of listening to myself helped.

Do you think you're the good guy or the bad guy in R&B?

Who do you think I am?

I think you’re a sweetie.

I don’t wanna be the bad guy, I’m a good guy. I’m easy to deal with. I’m a sweetie, but ain’t sh*t sweet though. (Laughs)

You have a lot of ‘90s and 2000s influence in your music. Do you ever feel you might sound dated, or do you think you’re bringing new sounds into the genre?

I just think I'm bringing a whole new sound. When I was younger, someone told me if you switch up what you’re doing, someone else is going to do it and you’re going to be pissed off. Just stick with it. When I was 14, everyone was telling me I needed to make club records but I didn’t want to do it. I remember CEOs saying, “Just let Jacquees do that [what he wants,]” because it’s a clock.

I figured out how to get my records at the club without changing who I was. I remember making “B.E.D.” and finding my flow on my project 19, you know? That’s when I got my swag.

What does love look like to you right now?

I think about a family. I think about me, a girl, a kid or something, like a whole family. One day I’m going to have it. I’ll still be in the game but I’ll say, “Yeah, that’s my wife over there with our son and daughter.” I'm getting older, too. I’ve been in the game for 10 years for real, but I’ll be 25 next year and soon they’ll be a little Jacquees.

There are a lot of layers in today’s R&B, especially in the mainstream resurgence it’s had. In that, there aren’t as many young male black vocalists being pushed to the forefront. I want to know your thoughts on where you exist in the genre today.

I think there's a big wave coming back right now because even if R&B didn't die down they weren’t promoting it that heavy. Artists were making songs, they just weren’t being acknowledged on a mainstream level. I think the game is really putting R&B back on top. You know, you’ve got artists like me, Tory [Lanez], Ella Mai, H.E.R., so many people, you know what I’m saying? Of course, you had Chris [Brown], Trey [Songz], all of them but that’s when we were in school. It’s a new time, ain’t no big male R&B singers.

I think I'm the leader though, as far as males go, I think I'm the number one. You're talking about R&B young dudes who understand who goin’ [at] it, [but] who are they going to put in the front? I believe everyone will say Jacquees. They’re not rugged like me. You’ve got Jodeci and Boyz II Men. I’m Jodeci, they’re all Boyz II Men. I’m street, they’re not street like me. You can hear it in their voice. There’s a difference.

It’s no disrespect to nobody because they’re all my friends, but I still wanna be number one. If we’re playing the game and I lose, I’ll be mad as hell but I’m still a good person. I just want to win.

As you should. Everyone wants to make the best music they can–

But I ain’t no hater either. The game is like a sport. The game is like high school. I remember being at this year’s BET Awards and seeing certain singers and thinking, ‘Oh, they’re seniors.’ I knew I was a freshman, but I saw Meek and all of them thought, “He’s a senior.’ You know how it is when you walk through school in the first year. Then the second you’re like, “I’m the ni**a now.”

When I did the Soul Train Awards in November, I felt like a sophomore that everybody knew. They knew me from my freshman year, but this time I’m playing varsity.

You’ve said before you want to do this for a long time–

Yeah, I want to make music forever and it’s my choice. I want to make enough money for me to turn down shows because now, I have to take everything I get. I always tell artists, you got this much time to make this much money. Because after that, sh*t’s closed. I've seen it happen.

For me, I know I got longevity in this game because I'm an R&B singer and a lot of R&B singers have longevity if you take care of yourself, you know what I'm saying? Even rappers, you know what I'm saying? You keep that flow going, don't do no lame sh*t, you know you’re stick around.

How do you take care of yourself?

You gotta take care of your health. That's number one. Your mind and your health is your biggest thing. Keeping good people around you...stay in good spirits with me. I like to keep good people around me. I like people around me [who] make me laugh. Smile, I don't really like people around me that I got to be like, “What's going on?” I just like people who are themselves.

Stream 4275 below.

READ MORE: Tyrese, Usher And Others Reacts To Jacquees' Claim That He's The King Of R&B

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