Posted on 13th Feb 2021 by John Rosie
Roger Cotterrell remembers poet, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Shake Keane as the first biography is published about this groundbreaking jazz musician.
How many jazz listeners know Shake Keane’s music now? How many even know his name? There is a loyal minority (and not just jazz people but also lovers of Caribbean music traditions, as well as of poetry), but there should be many more.
There are those of us who fondly remember the music of altoist Joe Harriott’s brilliant quintet, in which Shake was an absolutely essential part. The iconic quintet albums of the 1960s, Free Form, Abstract, Movement and High Spirits, can still be heard, reissued on CD. Shake’s wonderful trumpet and flugelhorn, powerful and crystal clear, is an indispensable voice on all of them.
Keane was Joe Harriott’s other musical half – rather like Paul Desmond to Dave Brubeck, or Billy Strayhorn to Duke Ellington. The Harriott quintet’s bassist Coleridge Goode used to say that Shake was the musical partner ‘Joe had waited for all his life’. Keane was one of the best modern jazz trumpeters working in Britain, and even better as a flugelhornist – probably the best jazz flugelhorn player in Europe (equally with Kenny Wheeler) with his burnished, warm tone, soaring phrases and precise technique at any tempo.
He arrived in London in 1952 from his native St. Vincent, aiming to study literature at London University and make ends meet by playing music in whatever contexts he could find. He was an ambitious poet too with a grandly poetic real name – Ellsworth McGranahan Keane. He got his nickname (short for ‘Shakespeare’) because of his love of literature. Over the years he published books of strong, often funny, sometimes bitter poetry. Now they are mainly hard to find. But as regards music, crucially, from 1960 until 1965 he was Harriott’s right-hand man.
The tragedy is that the recognition he needed and deserved did not come strongly enough. Regular work with Harriott did not bring enough financial reward, and the work became more sporadic as the quintet’s pioneering free form music alienated some listeners. He needed to make money. Shake made lightweight Caribbean-styled recordings, and albums of pop tunes over which his horns soared sometimes brightly, often half-heartedly.
It’s difficult to know what he thought of those commercial efforts. One was called That’s the Noise. When I asked Coleridge Goode, who knew Shake very well, about the title, he laughed and said, ‘When he heard music he liked that’s what he would bellow out: “Yeah, that’s the noise!”’ Keane was a big man in every way: six feet four and huge. If he hugged you, Coleridge used to say, he smothered you. He had strong, sometimes volatile emotions; he was warm, exuberant, ironic and sharply observant, as can be heard in his poetry.
Why isn’t he better recognised? Neither the artistic triumphs with Harriott nor the money from all the commercial albums was enough. Keane had decided by 1965 that he could not make the kind of living he wanted in Britain. He accepted a well-paid job in Germany as featured jazz soloist with Kurt Edelhagen’s orchestra. He never returned to re-settle in Britain. Eventually he went back to St Vincent, then moved to the States in 1981. But he had no green card so could only scuffle for years working sporadically as a jobbing musician. Ultimately he developed links in Norway, which is where he died in 1997, aged 70.
Keane’s really prominent musical career in Britain lasted only about five years. The excellent jazz recordings he made, especially with Harriott but some with pianist-composer Michael Garrick and a few under his own name, are superb testimony to his imagination and originality as a jazz musician.
For Shake, undoubtedly it was jazz that was ‘the noise’ he best loved, although he could function well in many musical contexts. But it is our inestimable loss that this country could not give him the opportunities he felt he needed to flourish as an artist and to be sufficiently financially recognised at the same time.
Plenty of jazz musicians face this dilemma, of course. But being black almost certainly didn’t help, just as it didn’t help Harriott. And they both wanted to make new music, a radical challenge for many listeners, creating sounds that were different from anything heard before. Together, they tried in Harriott’s quintet to invent a new approach to jazz, a free form music developed almost contemporaneously with Ornette Coleman’s innovations in America but entirely independently of Coleman.
In fact, Harriott’s free form, or as he called it, ‘abstract’ music worked on very different principles from Coleman’s. For one thing it incorporated the piano as a harmony instrument (which Coleman had discarded) and it was more varied in important ways than Coleman’s jazz: it allowed the musicians to use orthodox harmony and rhythms as well as free form elements, in whatever combination seemed appropriate to the performance.
Will Shake eventually get the wide recognition he deserves? Perhaps his saga will end like that of his musical soulmate Harriott. After the altoist’s tragic death in 1973, he seemed to become a forgotten man. But a biography of Joe (along with one of Coleridge Goode) helped encourage the reissue of most of Harriott’s recordings on CD. Now he has his rightful place among the British jazz greats.
Maybe something similar will happen for Shake Keane. Philip Nanton, a St. Vincent poet and writer living in Barbados, has just written the first biography of Keane. Titled Riff: The Shake Keane Story, it was published by Papillote Press this January. I have just ordered my copy and don’t doubt that it will be a good read, spreading the word about the turbulent life and fine music of this talented man who graced Britain’s shores for a brief time and left us a marvellous musical legacy.