Shake Keane is another musical genius, hardly known in his native Caribbean. He died in Norway in 1997, undeservedly unrecognised by most of us, because, like so many of our other impressive artists, musicians, writers and performers of the last century who strutted across the international stage, contributing to the new era of music and entertainment, he lived a life that was hard to keep track of.
I only knew his name because I came across the ground-breaking Joe Harriot Quintet music of the 1960s in a friend’s hot LP collection in London. If you were there almost anytime in the last 50 years and were interested in music, you would know about Harriott, the Jamaica-born alto saxophone player, composer and bandleader who pioneered free jazz with Shake Keane, the band’s virtuoso trumpeter and flugelhorn player whose adventurous improvisation contributed hugely to the waves made by the group.
Free jazz appeared in the super-creative musical era of the swinging sixties and the musical phenomenon had its devoted fans. It was not cool jazz and every English jazz player had to listen with respect and some awe.
What comparatively few knew might have known was that Shake Keane was a poet, nicknamed after Shakespeare by his schoolmates while growing up in his native St Vincent. He, like Naipaul, Lamming and nearly all our seminal writers who came of age in the 1950s, worked on the BBC World Service Caribbean Voices programme after migrating to the UK after WWII.
Unlike the others, though, he played in clubs at night and went on to study literature at the University of London, eventually in the 1960s joining Harriott and making musical history as the first band in Europe to play free jazz.
Keane’s private life was as temperamental or as feckless as that of most jazz musicians. Leaving a wife and two children behind, and a lover and another child, he moved to Germany and became a featured soloist with the Kurt Edelhagen Radio Orchestra, and also joined the famous ‘60s European-American jazz ensemble The Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band. Later, he moved to New York in 1981, not as a musician, and only restarted his career in 1989, after which Norway provided him with the most work. It was on one of his several tours there that he fell ill and died in 1997.
What happened to Shake Keane in the 1970s is where the Caribbean comes in. Philip Nanton might have called his newest book, which is about Keane, The Missing Years or even The In-between Years, but he called it Riff: The Shake Keane Story.
Nanton, himself a Vincentian and poet who spent most of his life in the UK and returned to the Caribbean to start a different life, became chiefly concerned about why Keane was not well known here, when he was an important artist, not exactly commonplace amongst Vincentians. He struck up a friendship with the man who was not only pivotal in shaping jazz musical history, but also a prize-winning poet – his collection One a Week with Water (1979) won the prestigious Cuban Casa de las Américas prize for poetry. His five collections spread across his adult life, starting in 1950 with L'Oubili and followed in 1952 by Ixion, Volcano Suite, also in 1979, Palm and Octopus in 1994, and the posthumous The Angel Horn – Shake Keane (1927–1997) Collected Poems in 2005.
A keen observer of and literary commentator on Caribbean society, Nanton tells how St Vincent squandered Keane’s talents. In 1972, Keane returned to St Vincent to take up a government position as director of culture, but a change of government abruptly ended that role in 1975, and the jazz pioneer turned to teaching to earn an income, while continuing to write poetry. Eventually he went into self-exile in New York and to a difficult life from which he was saved by people from his European past.
Philip Nanton’s deeply personal biography of Shake Keane investigates the reasons for those in-between years and Nanton will feature in a special Friday-night session of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest on April 23. He will be in conversation with the much admired Guyanese-born, TT-resident jazz musician and singer Ruth Osman and read from his new book.
The event will also be the chance to experience the premiere of the first part of a new composition by the once TT-popular St Lucian guitarist and band leader Gene Lawrence, who has set the poems of Keane’s Volcano Suite to music.
In a poignant echo, Keane’s long poem was inspired by the 1979 eruption of Soufriere.
TT’s annual literary festival, which takes on a virtual nature again this year, runs from April 23-25 on YouTube, Facebook and www.bocaslitfest.com. It’s all free and includes approximately 20 events, newly commissioned writing, animations and storytelling for children and festival staples, such as the Extempo Debate and the Big Idea discussion, which this year is: The Way Ahead for the post-Covid Caribbean.