Book review

Philip Nanton – ‘Riff: The Shake Keane Story’

Philip Nanton Riff: The Shake Keane Story)
(Papillote Press. 157pp. Book Review by John Fordham)

This may be a short book, but three enthralling stories are entwined in it. One involves the journey of a visionary modern jazz trumpeter who missed becoming a legend through happenstance, nostalgia for home, racism, and his own roving curiosity. A second vividly describes the eloquence of a rebelliously creative poet who heard the vernacular speech of his birthplace and improvisation in jazz as very similar languages; the third tracks the dreams of a reluctant but idealistic politician whose hopes for steering a cultural change evaporated in government faction-fights on his return to his homeland on the island of St Vincent.

Ellsworth McGranahan ‘Shake’ Keane was all three of these characters, and his immensely creative though for the most part carelessly-regarded contribution to jazz and Caribbean culture is sympthetically chronicled in Riff: The Shake Keane Story by his fellow Vincentian Philip Nanton. A poet, writer, and former academic, Nanton is closely attuned to the expressiveness of the local Creole-derived dialect’s vowel-stretches and musicality, and to those issues of migration, masculinity and nationalism that profoundly shaped his subject’s life. It needed a broad perspective to do the polymathic Keane justice, and Nanton has been celebrating the trumpeter/poet’s originality against a background of Caribbean history, art and politics for over 20 years.

But if Nanton’s admiration for Shake Keane is nurtured by study and knowledge, it’s also personal. The book’s opening scene is in a tiny waterfront bar in St Vincent’s Kingstown in 1979, with Nanton and Keane – a grizzled 52 year-old by this year of his country’s independence from Britain – meeting over Guinness and rum as gossiping returnees from European lives. Keane was by then running a modest secondary school on St Vincent, after being fired as the country’s first Director of Culture in a 1975 change of government. But he was still a widely-recognised local celebrity for his jazz exploits in Europe most famously as a key presence in saxophonist Joe Harriott’s innovative Abstract and Indo-Jazz Fusions groups in the 1960s and for his trenchantly personal poetry.

A young dockworker spots Keane from the street, and comes in to cadge a drink and try his homespun verses out on the wearily tolerant hero. The moment leads Nanton to reflect that he himself would tap Keane’s generosity of spirit by offering his poetry for judgement, and be awed by the speed with which the great man could bring it alive in a series of deft, decisive edits. Nanton swiftly expands this opening sketch of a gifted artist and generously modest character with a summary of the external forces that shaped Keane’s life the hunger for independence across the colonies in the 1950s and ’60s, the ‘where is home?’ pangs of displacement experienced by migrants, and his sense of himself as a Caribbean man in a period when the culture and its conceptions of masculinity were beginning to change.

Nanton locates Keane’s three youthful passions music, English literature, and Caribbean poetry in his policeman father’s ability as an amateur trumpeter and instigator of the household’s popular brass band, and the boy’s childhood talents as a poet, performer, and precocious lover of literature in the family’s storytelling gatherings. Keane was a bright student, briefly joining the island’s civil service before returning to his old secondary school as a pupil-teacher of French and music. But a schoolteacher’s life was never likely to hold him for long. His early success in St Vincent as a creative writer (by his mid-20s he had published two poetry collections, L’Oubli in 1950, and Ixion two years later), as a campaigner for an authentically West Indian literature, and as a sought-after musician, soon made the temptations of a world beyond the island irresistable. For Philip Nanton, Shake Keane’s location ‘at the crossroads between jazz and poetry’ determined the landmark achievement of his creative life ‘a blurring of the boundaries between these two art forms’.

Nanton documents Keane’s 1952 trip to London, armed with an introduction to Henry Swanzy, producer of BBC radio’s Caribbean Voices programme, which quickly brought him regular freelance work as a reporter and presenter for the Corporation’s overseas service, and contact with many Caribbean writers in the UK. He also signed up to an English Literature degree course at University College but after two years, the telltale tone and phrasing on trumpet and flugelhorn by which Keane could silence a noisy room was paying for the young family he now had, and displacing academic study in his life.

By 1958, Keane was frequently playing Soho jazz haunts like the Marquee and the Flamingo often as a key presence in Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott‘s band, the groundbreaking group on the cusp of bebop and a chordless free-jazz that he would fruitfully work with for six years. Keane’s effortless musicality then took him to Europe, where he became a regular in two of the continent’s most respected big bands, the prestigious Kurt Edelhagen Radio Orchestra (link below), and the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Band. Nanton quotes British composer, bandleader and poetry devotee Michael Garrick who would form a close bond with Shake Keane in the UK’s pioneering jazz-and-poetry performances in the 1960s in his assessment that Keane’s improvisations were ‘like breathing’. But it’s the insight of photojournalist and historian Val Wilmer (to whom Nanton has dedicated the book) that perhaps most astutely catches his sonic magic, in her observation that his secret lay in the fragile balance between a lyrical delicacy, enhanced by the flugelhorn’s warmth, and outbursts of startling ferocity. It’s a tension between playfulness and anger that Nanton also recognises in his subject’s remarkable poetry.

Shake Keane, Berlin, 1966. Still from video – link below

Nanton portrays Shake Keane as a man and an artist navigating a disorientatingly turbulent sea – stirred by the political flux of decolonisation and the nationalism that followed it, migration’s dreams of a better life at the risk of severing the roots of identity, and by trying to grasp what it might mean to be a Caribbean artist in a shrinking globalised world. The author perceptively suggests that everything from Keane’s artistic fearlessness, to his erratic family life and depressions, and his dreams of making a lasting cultural difference on St Vincent, can be linked to a jazz acceptance of the short distance between order and free-fall. That fine line sporadically set him free, but also trapped him.

Nanton posits what he calls ‘a jazz rule-breaking style’ in all these things. Writing eloquently of Keane’s dual muses in music and poetry and his skill in undercutting the latter’s ‘high seriousness’, the author describes him as ‘one who is located at the crossroads between two disciplines, who understands their rules but chooses to break them or interpret them in his own way, and take the chance that he will be understood…particularly in his mature work, he often applies what could be called a jazz rule-breaking style to the composition of poetry. This ranges from a particular way of “playing” with a subject, to how a poem is orchestrated visually on the page.’ One of the book’s best features is Nanton’s detailed analysis of Shake Keane’s poetry, in passages like his focus on ‘Week Thirty Three’, from the 1979 collection One A Week With Water, winner of a Casa de las Américas prize that year – a poem that catches the feel of a conversation shouted across a street, as a returning migrant faces a spontaneously critical interrogation.

Philip Nanton’s fine book opens a window on both a jazz story and a literary story that the chroniclers of both fields have largely bypassed. He has achieved that despite what must have been considerable challenges in unearthing original material and documentary evidence from a life long forgotten since Keane’s last years as an isolated self-exile in a single New York room, and his death at 70 on a trip to Norway in 1997. Five appendices of Shake Keane’s poems round out the book, which also features several of Val Wilmer’s atmospheric black and white photographs. With Riff: The Shake Keane Story, Philip Nanton has drawn a unique 20th century artist out of the shadows, and in the process established Shake Keane on the podium of Caribbean originals that’s been awaiting his arrival for decades.

LINKS: The book launch’s online discussion of Riff, involving Shake Keane’s son Roland Ramanan, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jazzwise writer Kevin LeGendre and others.

Riff: The Shake Keane Story at Papillote Press

Facebook video of  Shake Keane with the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra at the Berlin Jazztage in 1966

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