I asked if he could apply his obvious expertise to the subject of my research, Billy Strayhorn, and his collaborator and sponsor, Duke Ellington, and we were set for the evening. I had to wrap things up mid-conversation because I had brought only two 90-minute tapes.
Dr. Shirley could expound with deep authority and even deeper passions on the subject of music — or, I soon learned, on the subjects of human psychology, American society, politics, cuisine, fine art, folk art, commercial art … whatever struck him as suitable for exposition at the moment. The second time we met in his studio, he cut me off after about an hour and said: “All you want to talk about is Billy Strayhorn. Is that the only thing you care about?” Clearly well read and gifted with extraordinary capacities for recall and synthetic analysis, he had a seemingly inexhaustible body of knowledge at ready disposal and fierce opinions about everything.
“The intellectual curiosity of creative people is something always present,” he told me. “It’s not something you go out one night and come home with, like the damn clap.”
Erudite and salty in roughly equal measures, he once broke down the musical structure of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in eloquent detail, adding that “it was employed in the score of ‘The Red Shoes,’ but nobody hears it because they’re too busy staring at the girl’s legs.”
After about a year, I ran out of things to ask him about Strayhorn and Ellington, but we continued to get together in his studio for conversation and cheese and crackers. He did nearly all the talking, though his talk shifted easily into ranting, often screaming, sometimes in objection to things I did or said. He loathed the magazine I was working for, Entertainment Weekly, while I researched my book, though he never once read it — on principle, he said — and conflated it with the puffy TV series “Entertainment Tonight.” For the first several years of our friendship — and I did come to see it as a friendship, because there was no longer business in it — I served as president of the Duke Ellington Society, a hybrid study group and fan club, and Dr. Shirley found the idea of the organization offensive. “It’s idol worship,” he said. “It’s uncivilized. You need to resign immediately!” (I did not.)