Real “Shake” Keane

Born into a musical family in St Vincent, Ellsworth "Shake" Keane was one of the international jazz world's most admired musicians in the 1960s, but for 20 years he disappeared from the limelight, devoting himself to the writing of poems. Philip Nanton investigates the contradictions and juxtapositions in the life of this "musical chameleon" who saw jazz as nothing less than a mode of being

  • Shake Keane in his Bedford Stuyvesant neighbourhood, 1989
  • Shake Keane in the late 1980s
  • Shake Keane at the National Jazz Festival in 1963, playing trumpet & flugelhorn simultaneously, with Joe Harriott in background
  • Shake Keane in the rehersal room in the 1960s
  • The Joe Harriott Quintet in 1960 playing a gig at London’s Marquee Club
  • Ellsworth "Shake" Keane

Ellsworth McGranahan “Shake” Keane

England in 1952, any month, would have been a cold place to arrive with just 11 pounds sterling in your pocket. But if you could play the horn, Shake used to say, then playing mambo and calypso was better than carrying bricks to build houses in Pimlico.

A musician from the age of six, Ellsworth McGranahan “Shake” Keane was taught to play by his father. He had a gift for music. Twenty years later, when he returned to St Vincent, it was for his achievement as a trumpet and flugelhorn player that he had become famous in international jazz circles, though he had left for London intending to study English literature. Although formal academic study was soon abandoned, his commitment to literature, particularly poetry, never deserted him.

Both jazz and poetry became important anchors in his life.

In 1927, Shake was born into a family of musicians in his native St Vincent. (Some say the nickname came from his love of literature — it was short for “Shakespeare”; others attribute it to his love of a popular tune, Chocolate Milk Shake, in his early years.) He later recounted hard times in his youth, including tales of furniture being carried to safety through windows to dodge approaching bailiffs.

But there was always the music. The Keane Brothers comprised an entire band at one time, and at an early age Shake was thrust into its leadership. As a teenager, he also became a member of one of the island’s leading dance bands, Ted Lawrence and His Silvertone Orchestra, and Shake’s distinctive horn was a regular feature in the annual carnival celebrations. He was no academic slouch either, taking a post as pupil-teacher in the island’s grammar school in 1944, where among other subjects he taught music and French.

But poetry was equally his passion. L’Oubli, his first collection, was published in 1950, when he was 23 years old, followed by Ixion in 1952. He went on to publish three more collections, One a Week With Water: Rhymes and Notes and The Volcano Suite, both in 1979, and Palm and Octopus in 1994.

L’Oubli and Ixion show Shake’s early skills as a poet. Some of this writing he acknowledged as a West Indian version of English poetry of the 1930s, influenced by W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Cecil Day-Lewis. A primary feature of his early collections was economy of language to express a range of conflicts and moods; for example, the picture of rural life from the opening of the poem “Perhaps Not Now” contains both the hope of ease and the reality of hardship:

Perhaps not now the crops’ comfort,
The chair with its deep harvest of rest,
Afternoons’ unhurried naps.
Not now the day,
Some other time perhaps
As yet only work, and waiting, and dreaming and the dust.

The early poetry reveals an interest in religious contemplative themes. This was reflected in two articles Shake published in Bim in 1952, titled “Some Religious Attitudes in West Indian Poetry”. “L’Oubli”, the long meditative poem from which his first collection takes its name, presented six variations on the theme of human fallibility and the transitory nature of the age. “Our time is of forgetting / and today’s dreams — meteorite / come, and gone”. These early collections fluctuate between introspective musings drawing on biblical references and nature, and a creative focus on the folk traditions of St Vincent. These come together in his often anthologised poem “Shaker Funeral”, in which he captures the emotional fervour and incantations of a burial procession for a leading “shepherdess”, a religious leader.

Sweet Mother gone
to the bye and bye
follow her to the brink of Zion

Communal and down-to-earth concerns, in both rural and urban settings, became a theme of his writing, paralleled in his music by an instinctive openness.

It was in England that Shake began to consider himself a jazz musician. He had obtained a job as a producer with the BBC, and he went to interview Joe Harriott, the Jamaican jazz saxophonist. Harriott was looking for a trumpeter to join his band. He wanted someone with whom he could dialogue in musical form. Shake more than met the challenge. He became one of a select band of musicians who, because of the clarity and quality of his playing, was rarely out of work. He played with the Joe Harriott Quintet, the Michael Garrick Quintet, and later, in a move to Germany, with bands led by Kurt Edel Hagen, Francy Boland, and Kenny Clarke. Last summer, wanting to find out more about Shake’s musicianship, I talked with Michael Garrick, his one time band-leader in London. He described Shake as a “musical chameleon”, remembering how easily a wide range of styles came to him. Horn playing for Shake, he said, was like breathing.

But with all the sophisticated jazz around him, Shake could not afford to be elitist. A jobbing musician, he not only achieved tremendous respect as a jazz artist but he worked with popular African and Caribbean bands as well. He backed the prolific Lord Kitchener, played with the Nigerian drummer Ginger Johnson, played sessions for Oh Boy! (British TV’s Top of the Pops of this era), and he could be heard regularly at Sunday lunchtime London pub gigs, matching whoever brought an instrument to play in the saloon bar of his local. His music, like his poetry, was for all.

His lifestyle was as gregarious as his art. In appearance he was a fearsome six-foot-four, with full beard, dark shades, and a constant supply of roll-up cigarettes always to hand. This fierce demeanor was offset by a playfulness and lyricism which permeated his style. Val Wilmer, the jazz historian, has described the way these features combine in his music. “His playing,” she writes, “combines two extremes: the fragile lyricism for which the wide-bored flugelhorn is particularly suited, and an almost brutal aggressiveness and unpredictability. It is this sound of surprise in his playing, and his ability to handle music of any kind, that puts him at the forefront of his generation of trumpeters.”

In 1972, Shake took up an offer to return to St Vincent as director of the National Department of Culture, only to find himself out of a job when, two years later, the department was closed down following a change of political regime. With little prospect of re-entering a full-time jazz career in Europe, he returned to secondary school teaching and his poetry. His writing became spare, fragmented, satirical, and angry, suggesting a sense of frustration caused by local politics and the abandonment of a flourishing jazz career.

But by 1976, while teaching in Georgetown, St Vincent’s second-largest town, he completed One a Week With Water: Rhymes and Notes. It is probably here that he achieved his most imaginative and lasting commentary on Caribbean society in general, and St Vincent society in particular. In 1979 he was awarded Cuba’s Casa de las Americas prize for this poetry collection. Through humour, satire, and a range of experiments with language, the collection offers an oblique commentary on Caribbean society.

Conscious of the possibilities of jazz crossing the boundaries of various creative art-forms, Shake identified criteria which for him legitimated poetry, novels, indeed any genre, as “jazz”. In a discussion about poetry and jazz with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mike Garrick, broadcast by the BBC in 1992, he observed:

There are certain kinds of structure, certain habits, that all jazz men seem to have, and if you find a poem that uses what would parallel those habits you might say, for example, that is a jazz poem. For example, the riff, the repeated phrase, that happens in jazz a lot. Then you have the sudden juxtaposition of certain elements. Then there is the feeling that the poem is improvised . . . although . . . the structure just leaps out at you and the care and craftsmanship is there . . . but some [poems] are highly crafted but don’t strike you as highly crafted. If you pick out these elements, and find them in other writing or ways of dress or ways of talking, you can say that is a jazz man or that is a jazz hat, jazz poem, or jazz novel.

These characteristics of juxtaposition and what appeared to be casual improvisation, but was actually detailed attention to the crafting of the work, were all important features of One a Week With Water.

In what at first appears to be a lighthearted way, the collection provides a thought or a comment for each week of a calendar year. In week 14, for example, he makes fun of the serious business of official statistical calculation. He writes

if you take the amount of
strong rum (calculated in proof-gallons)
consumed in any given month
of Sundays, and compare it with
the excise duty (assessed as a per-
centage over and above the actual
value of the liquor) then divide
this amount by the energy required
to deface any number of domino dots
by slamming, over a period, of, say,
one month of Sundays. And if
this entire calculation is undertaken
between nine and eleven-thirty in the
fore-noon of any Sunday, and ex
pressed in terms of foot pounds recurring,
chances are, you’re a genius,
and your wife is probably
wondering what on earth
you and the boys
could be up to
this sunny
Sunday mor-

But his humour is offset by shards of anger. In week 3 he observes:

For 400 years
Out of Ngola
40 people
turned up on the plantations of Brazil
every week very weak
or in the plantations of the sea

Every Sunday
As I sugar my tea
I want to Shoot

In the text, he suggests that while his island “deals perhaps less comfortably with situations of fact than with engagements of personality,” for him hope comes out of creativity. Thus this optimistic comment: “what we will create and even already done start create, pon this scarred and hallowed mountain top, could blow yo mind.”

But this return to St Vincent now seemed to him to be a dead end. In 1981, feeling increasingly embittered, and with a number of relationships destroyed, he once again departed, this time for New York. Here he made his home till his death, at the start of a tour to Norway, in 1997. Times were again often hard. He turned to arranging, and played music less regularly. The decades, it seems, had taken their toll, as had a daily existence in the US without an official residence permit for a number of years, and then suffering the indignity of a few muggings. The loss of some teeth made him chary about playing, because of the fear that his high standards would be compromised. However, in 1991 he made his one CD, Real Keen: Reggae into Jazz, under the British LKJ label. Sporadic gigs Harriott Quintet (Coleridge Goode and Bobby Orr) in London, and making guest appearances in Oslo, Norway.

But age, declining health, and the straitened conditions of life in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn were catching up with him. Trapped by circumstances, he again returned to poetry. A number of his unpublished poems from these years evoke some of the experiences of living in New York that he chose to record. One image that these poems convey is of a somewhat solitary figure with time on his hands and considerable experience of bar culture. His unpublished “Brooklyn Themes: Poems September 1981–February 1983”, for example, is dedicated to “all my friends at the Tiffany’s lounge, Brooklyn, where all these poems were conceived and most were written.” From this collection of nine poems, four of them (“Juke Box”, “The Bar”, “Ruth”, and “Gwen Sings”) deal with aspects of bar life.

The poetry also became more reflective and personal, as in Palm and Octopus, a collection of 12 love poems that he published independently in 1994. One of his last poems, “Angel Horn”, offers a gentle interpretation of his musicianship and a lyrical summing up of an older man’s perspective on his art and his life:

When I was born
my father gave to me
an angelhorn
With wings of melody.
That angel placed her lips
upon my finger-tips
and I became, became
her secret name.

Shake Keane’s was a rich and varied artistic life, with high levels of accomplishment in both literature and music. Yes, there were lows, as well as mistakes. He lived his life very much to his own pattern and tempo. He experienced the heights of acclaim in the unofficial international world of jazz and Caribbean poetry circles and, however briefly, he experienced the upper echelons of his home island’s official and formal world. He was undoubtedly more at home in the world of the informal than the formal, and, unceremoniously, he was quickly thrust back into the world of informality by the infamous admonishment of one of the island’s government ministers that “you can’t eat culture”.

Then picture this scene. It’s a Monday morning in March 2003. The location is Kingstown’s main arts centre, the Peace Memorial Hall. Politicians, religious leaders, island dignitaries are all in attendance. Shake’s almost life-size bust, with spectacles, rests on a polished wooden plinth in a corner of the room, waiting to be unveiled. Prayers are offered and speeches are made. As I make my own speech, I see, in my mind’s eye, the bust give a wry smile; in my head I hear Shake’s booming laugh and his baritone voice saying, dryly, “when you’re dead you’re famous”. The credits roll.

Shake Keane Milestones

1927    Born in St Vincent and the Grenadines

1933    Debut in public, in the brass section of a parade band at a Boy Scouts’ jamboree

1944    Pupil teacher at the St Vincent Grammar School

1950    Publication of L’Oubli (Advocate, Barbados)

1951    Publication of Ixion (Miniature Poets Series, No 10, Georgetown, British Guiana)

1952    Arrives in England

1960    Joins Joe Harriott Quintet

1961    Voted best instrumentalist in University of London Jazz Band

1965    In Germany playing with the Kurt Edel Hagen, Francy Boland, and Kenny Clarke bands

1972    Publication of Nancitori With Drums (Kingstown, St Vincent)

1973    Appointed Director of Culture, St Vincent and the Grenadines

1976    Appointed principal of Bishop’s College, Georgetown, St Vincent, and teacher at Intermediate High School, Kingstown

1979    Publication of The Volcano Suite: A Series of Five Poems (Kingstown) and One a Week With Water: Rhymes and Notes (Casa de las Americas, Havana, Cuba)

1981    Performs at Carifesta IV in Barbados. Arrives in New York

1991    Subject of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s BBC film Shake, Beat and Dub. Film part in The Search for Mangas Coloradas, Norway

1992    Release of Real Keen: Reggae into Jazz CD (LKJ, London)

1997    Dies in Oslo, Norway

2003   Officially honoured with a bust at Peace Memorial Hall, Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines

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