In the days when well known modern jazz musicians travelled the country as soloists, performing with local rhythm sections, I was lucky enough to hear the trumpeter Shake Keane at the Riverside Jazz Club in Nottingham, accompanied by the unit from the house band: Tommy Saville on piano, Geoff Pearson on bass and Les Shaw on drums.
This would have been around 1962. I was too young to be allowed official admission to the wooden extension behind the Town Arms pub on Trent Bridge where the weekly sessions took place, but I’d been managing to get in and enjoy the sounds of the regular quintet, completed by the tenor saxophones of Mel Thorpe and John Marshall. Their versions of hip tunes like Nat Adderley’s “Work Song”, his brother Cannonball’s “Sack O’Woe” and Jimmy Heath’s “Big P” gave me my first precious experience of live jazz at close quarters.
I was anxious to hear Keane because I’d been listening to Abstract, the Joe Harriott Quintet album which had earned a five-star review in Down Beat. The trumpeter played an important role in a band that had found its own perspective on the general loosening of the rules then taking place at the sharp end of jazz. Now we can see that the combination of two Caribbean musicians in the front line — Harriott from Jamaica, Keane from St Vincent — gave the music a special flavour.
In person he was physically imposing — 6ft 4in tall, bespectacled, with a full beard — and sonically powerful. I have no memory of what tunes were played but I remember the sound of his flugelhorn in particular, big and warm but avoiding the luscious plumminess that some trumpeters drew from the big-bore horn. When I listen to his recordings now, I hear an improviser whose phrases were full of interesting angles.
Philip Nanton’s newly published Riff: The Shake Keane Story tells us that Ellsworth McGranahan Keane arrived in London in 1952 on the steamship Colombie. Then 25 years old, he had received an excellent education at the Boys’ Grammar School in Kingstown, he had played in bands and orchestras, he had worked as a magistrate’s clerk and a teacher, and he was already a published poet before deciding to join the Windrush generation of emigrants to Britain. His qualifications and aptitudes soon earned him a job on the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme. Before long he was also a member of local jazz scene, while spending two years studying English literature at London University.
He joined forces with Harriott in 1960, and the work they did together — recorded by Denis Preston for the Jazzland and Columbia labels — still sounds fresh, vigorous and imaginative. The other members of the quintet were the always underrated Pat Smythe on piano, Coleridge Goode on bass and Phil Seamen or Bobby Orr on drums. Keane also collaborated with the pianist Michael Garrick, notably on projects with the poet/publisher Jeremy Robson.
You could look at Keane, Harriott, Goode, the saxophonists Harold McNair and Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair and another trumpeter, Harold Beckett, all post-war arrivals from the Caribbean, as giving British modern jazz the kind of creative infusion that was provided later in the 1960s by the refugees from apartheid-era South Africa: Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, Harry Miller.
In 1965 Keane accepted an offer to join Kurt Edelhagen’s big band in Cologne. The money was good, the standards were high, and he stayed in Germany for seven years, alongside the likes of Gaynair, the lead altoist Derek Humble and the trombonist Jiggs Whigham. His soloing with the band is featured on a handful of the tracks on a recent Edelhagen three-CD set titled The Unreleased WDR Jazz Recordings 1957-1974. It’s not my kind of big-band jazz — too conventional — but of course it’s very well done.
After leaving Edelhagen he freelanced around Europe before accepting an offer to return to St Vincent in 1973 as the island’s director of culture. A play of his was given its first performance, but the following year a change of government cost him his job, forcing him to find work as a teacher and as a provider of music for tourists. In 1981, fed up, he left the island for New York, and would never return.
Settled into a Caribbean community in Brooklyn, he played a little and wrote poetry but found life hard. In 1989 he returned to the UK to take part in a reunion tour of the Harriott quintet, and two years later he was back again at the behest of his fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, recording an EP with Dennis Bovell and becoming the subject of an Arena documentary made by Anthony Wall. He visited Norway on several occasions during his final years, and it was in Oslo that he died from stomach cancer in 1997.
His story is very well told in Riffs, whose author, also born in St Vincent, does not dodge the difficult marriages or the drinking problem that made him, in the words of the first of his wives, Christiane Ricard, “a difficult and provocative man”. It’s worth noting that they remained in touch, and she gave Nanton a illuminating interview — one one many collected during what was clearly a lengthy and thorough research process — before her death in 2005.
One way and another, Keane wasn’t able to leave the sort of legacy on record that his talent deserved. But this excellent book will help to ensure that his story won’t be forgotten.
* Philip Nanton’s Riffs: The Story of Shake Keane is published by Papilotte Press (www.papilottepress.co.uk). The Kurt Edelhagen set is on the Jazzline Classics/WDR label. Keane’s work with Joe Harriott can be heard on a compilation of three albums — Southern Horizons, Free Form and Abstract — on the Fresh Sounds label.