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The Shake Keane Story (Part 3)

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In a chapter captioned “The View from Tiffany’s Lounge” the author looks at Shake’s New York experience, the US being his final port of migration.

Tiffany’s Lounge which was near to his place of residence, was where he spent much of his time, a spot whose patrons became subjects and inspiration for his poetry. It was one of the low points of his life. His illegal status affected his ability to find jobs. He, however, did some gigs and partnered with Frankie McIntosh to do studio recordings of Vincentian and Trinidadian calypsonians. He was plagued with a knee injury and had an encounter with gout. The environment was violent, and Shake was mugged once while walking to his home. Damage to one of his front teeth affected him very much for even when he had it fixed, he was not pleased with the sound he produced. He made regular calls to acquaintances in England and Europe and at home. Franke McIntosh recalled getting calls at 2 am in the morning when Shake discussed with him a variety of topics “from the German philosopher, Heidegger, to catching black fish in Barrouallie.”

According to Philip, his feeling of isolation and loneliness became obvious in his writings. Friends and acquaintances from London often visited him. His call to George Lamming whose book Pleasures of Exile, he was reading suggested some nostalgia for London in the 1950s and sixties, having known Lamming when they worked at the BBC. Lamming was also reading his Volcano Suite poems and once phoned me and asked if we produced Empire cigarettes in St. Vincent, having read one of the lines of those poems, “my Empire cigarettes have lately been tasting of sulphur.”

The only ‘trace of hope or respite’, we are told, was reflected in his “Sonnet for Margaret”. He had developed a relationship with and later married Margaret Bynoe whom he knew at the Bishop College Georgetown. Margaret later became a professor at Cornell University. From 1991 he went to Norway twice a year to play and teach at Jazz workshops, at the invitation of a friend Erik Bye whom he had known at the BBC. He also made visits to London, renewing his relationship with Linton Kwesi Johnson, and playing with the ‘reconstituted’ Joe Harriet Memorial Quintet. An invitation to visit Norway for another jazz tour in 1997 found Shake arriving in a wheelchair, dying later in a hospital with his friend Erik holding his hand.

The section of the book that I find most appealing is Philips analysis of Shake’s poetry, especially his examination of the link between his jazz and poetry. In fact, he suggests that his “most significant achievement was ultimately a blurring of the boundaries between these two art forms”. He recognised a diversity of themes in his poetry: “poems of more formal faith as well as the spiritual life-force of nature, poems of place exploring ‘the local’ through landscape, language and individuals, poems of social commentary that employ satire and mockery, and finally, sometimes melancholic poems about love and art.” Much of his work, singling out his Cuban prize winning piece, he considered “unconventional and resistant to easy categorisation.” One surprising thing that the author mentions is that Shake paid little attention to his poetry in London even though he participated in a number of poetry/jazz concerts, some of those with whom he played not even aware that he was a poet. Son Mitchell, however, recalled to the author hearing him read one of his poems at one of those concerts.

What is surprising despite his winning the regional Casa de las Americas prize, is that his work is not widely available and well known. Perhaps this is best seen with the comment made by Natasha Marks who reviewed his ‘Angel Horn’ collection, “Why the hell have I never read the work of this Vincentian poet before?” So, kudos to Philip Nanton for making this musical and poetic genius more widely known. I have devoted three pieces to this book because like Philip I believe we need to know and appreciate the work of our Vincentian hero.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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