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The Shake Keane Story (Part 1)

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THE SHAKE KEANE story is finally here. Last week Thursday, The Shake Keane Story a short but comprehensive biography of Shake Keane written by Philip Nanton, was launched virtually.

Philip’s well researched and beautifully written biography captures not only Shake’s contribution as poet and Jazz trumpeter/ flugelhorn player but of the man himself in the three environments in which he functioned, SVG, England/ Europe and the US where he appeared to be almost in ‘self-imposed exile’.

Philip first met Shake in 1979 when he served as principal of the Intermediate High School. He has over the years been researching Shake’s role as musician and poet. In 2002 he did a BBC Radio program on Shake looking at Angel Horne, one of his poems written in 1997. He was featured speaker at the launching of Shake’s collection of poems, Angel Horn. He was also featured speaker on the occasion when a bust of Shake was unveiled at the Peace Memorial Hall. Shake’s story begins with Philip tracing his musical background, noting that he came from a musical family, his father having taught music to his children. He joined the family’s brass band at the age of 6 and later played in other bands of that time, and with his brother Don at rallies of McIntosh’s Working Men’s Cooperative Association.

Philip was informed about his years at the Grammar School from Dr Cecil Cyrus who was one of his closest friends there. Apart from looking at his early development as a musician we get a glimpse into another aspect of his life. He had an interest in English Literature that led him into poetry and in the 1940s and 50s he formed part of a trio with Danny Williams and Owen Campbell, their poems appearing in the Vincentian newspaper and in the BIM magazine in Barbados, edited by Frank Collymore and Guyana’s Kyk Over-Al edited by A. J Seymour and read on the BBC’s Caribbean Voice. He taught for a while at the Grammar School before migrating in 1952 to England with the intention of doing a degree in English Literature. This period was especially important in influencing his poetry.

St. Vincent’s attainment of Adult Suffrage the year before he migrated, and the issue of a West Indian federation being very much in the air; Shake’s strong religious feelings, having come from a staunch Methodist family.

All of these appeared to have had some influence on his early poetry.

A stop in Barbados on his way to England allowed him to meet with Frank Collymore who gave him a letter of introduction to Frank Swanzy, editor of the BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices. He was through this able to secure a part time job at the BBC from 1952-1965, joining other West Indian writers like George Lamming who was also working part time with that programme.

Philip captures his career as a jazz musician after he had discontinued his university studies to devote his full attention to music.

His stints with the Joe Harriet Quintet and being part of the Michael Garrick Jazz/poetry concerts are all looked at through interviews with persons with whom he worked and with Jazz historians and others familiar with the British and European Jazz world, for he did undertake a three year contract in Germany. Philip not only looked at the heights to which he climbed but at his many challenges, the racism in Britain and his failed marriages. Jazz Historian, Val Wilmer said of Shake, referring to his ‘instantly recognisable style’; “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 the generation of trumpeters”.

The Times of London referred to him as the most brilliant trumpeter and flugelhorn player of his generation of London based West Indian musicians” By the early 1970s, according to Philip, he seemed to have had enough of touring and recording studios. An invitation to be part of the organising committee of CARIFESTA in Guyana and his attendance at that first CARIFESTA at which he read a poem on regional unity at the closing ceremony, might have made it easy for him to accept an offer by Son Mitchell then Premier of St. Vincent to take up the job of Director of Culture in the department of Culture that they were in the process of establishing.

He returned in 1973, eager to make a contribution but the political situation had changed. It was the period of the ‘Junta Government’ which was defeated at the polls in 1974. Shake’s relationship with Son Mitchell according to the author might have been instrumental in the dismantling of the Department of Culture in 1975, a Minister of government at that time making the infamous remark that “You can’t eat Culture”.

Shake had lost his job!

(To be continued)

● Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian