"I like the tie," said Shake Keane. "Thank you," I said. It was the mid-Sixties and we were at the Manchester Sports Guild, an unlikely establishment, where the sport came in the form of subsidised beer and visiting American jazz musicians. Keane was playing trumpet there with Joe Harriott's quintet.
"I collect peoples' ties," said Keane. "It's a good way of remembering them. Would you swap yours for mine?" Looking at the drab and shapeless affair round his neck I wasn't enthusiastic about the proposition. But it did imply that one of the best trumpet players in the country wanted to remember me. I unknotted the tie and gave it to him and he gave me his. I reflected that I should be grateful that Keane hadn't collected trousers, or jackets.
Keane came from a family of seven, all of whom were taught music by their father. He became a teacher in his native island of St Vincent and it was there that he was given the nickname "Shake", because of his interest in poetry and particularly the writings of Shakespeare. He came to London University in 1952 to study literature and at once slipped into the nucleus of West Indian jazz musicians who were based here.
He joined Joe Harriott's quintet in 1960. Harriott had reached a level of stable improvising in free-form jazz. He composed little themes, beautifully phrased, which served as the point of departure for his musicians to improvise solos. While Harriott himself reverted often to a set of cliches in his playing, Keane was able to construct a mellow and imaginative flow of ideas that created its own form.
He took a year's leave from Harriott in 1962 to complete his studies at the London School of Economics. The writer Alun Morgan, often a judge at inter-university jazz band competitions, recalls his amazement at hearing wonderful, mature trumpet-playing bursting from a band made up of Keane and some hapless teenagers. As a mature student (he was 35), Keane was entitled to compete.
An assiduous brandy drink-er, he was never without a bottle in his pocket. "Had he taken proper care of himself," says the composer / pianist Michael Garrick, "trumpeters like Wynton Marsalis and Kenny Wheeler would have had to watch out. Shake was as good and he played a wider range of music. He had a fine intellect and a fertile mind."
What acclaim Keane received was generally in partnership with Garrick or Harriott, but musicians recognised that he and his countryman Harry Beckett were unmatched, in Europe at least, for their lyrical, imaginative trumpet-playing. Keane joined with enthusiasm the controversial poetry-and-jazz presentations that Garrick espoused, staying with the composer for several years.
In the early Sixties he also took on studio work, so that his mellow flugelhorn was heard as the background to many television commercials. Demand burgeoned and he left Britain for German radio studios. There, between 1965 and 1972, he worked mainly for the orchestra leader Kurt Edelhagen, seeking relief from the enormous pressure of the studios with jazz gigs in the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland band.
"I'm totally played out," Keane told Garrick when he returned from Germany. He returned to St Vincent, where he joined in local politics and rose swiftly to become Government Minister of the Arts. In 1980 he worked in New York as a cultural attache for the island. When the government changed he went back home to teaching.
Later he went back to New York without a visa and lived and worked undercover for some years. In 1989 the American government extended an amnesty to illegal immigrants and Keane became an official resident. That same year he returned to England to tour with the Joe Harriott Memorial Quintet, in which Garrick played the piano and the alto saxophonist Martin Hathaway took the role of Harriott, who had died in 1973. Also in 1989, Keane and Garrick were filmed playing at the Royal Academy for the BBC television series Music of the World.
Keane returned to New York and earned a dwindling living from his literary activities. Each year, he took part in a poetry festival in Bergen, Norway, as a guest reader and musician. On one of his visits he had all his teeth removed, and this more or less ended his professional career as a brass player.
- Steve VoceReuse content