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Ellsworth Keane: 1927-1997
Ellsworth Keane
Trumpet, flugelhorn

Born: May 30, 1927 in St Vincent, West Indies
Died: November 10, 1997 in Norway

Carribean Free Jazz Innovator

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1997

Keane, Shake Shake Keane was a key innovator on the London jazz scene in the 1960s, where the band he formed with Joe Harriott blazed new ground in the free jazz movement of the time.

He was born Ellsworth McGranahan Keane on the Caribbean island of St Vincent, and was a precocious talent even as a child. He first performed in public on trumpet at the age of 6, and was leading his own band by the age of 14, a year after the death of his father, who had initially taught him to play, and encouraged his musical interests. He developed an early interest in literature as well, especially poetry, and published his first poems prior to moving to England in 1952, an act which also earned him his familiar nickname, Shake being short for "Shakespeare".

When he arrived in London, it was to study literature at London University by day, and play jazz and Caribbean music by night in London's clubs. He was influenced by Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, but also by Caribbean and African music, and evolved a distinctive style from their fusion. He recorded with the calypso artist Lord Kitchener, and was featured as part of a resident vocal quartet in the television show Oh Boy!, singing the bass parts in popular songs. He did some broadcasting on the BBC World Service, including an interview with Joe Harriott for the Caribbean Voices programme.

The trumpeter had first played with the Jamaican-born saxophonist when both were members of a band led by the African pianist Mike McKenzie in the mid-50s. Like Keane, Harriott was a fine bebop player, but had begun to experiment with more open harmonic and rhythmic structures around 1958, the precursor of his important free jazz work in the 1960s.

While Keane's colourful eccentricities and open manner (although, by his own admission, his personality also had a darker and more volatile side) contrasted sharply with Harriott's more reserved, rigorous personality, their musical partnership was a homogenous one. Both thrived on the challenges laid down by the unpredictable nature of the music, and they pushed each other to ever more daring discoveries in the process.

The six years of their association, spanning 1959-65, produced several seminal recordings, most of which are now hard to find in their original form, and change hands at very high prices, although CD reissues on Verve's UK label Redail in 1998 made they readily available again. They included Free Form (1960) and Abstract (1962), as well as the Indo-Jazz Fusions project with John Meyer.

The records, particularly Abstract, were well received in the USA, and the quintet performed at a number of the major European jazz festivals. The band was never commercially viable, however, and received little recognition in the UK at the time, leading to its eventual break-up in 1966 (Harriott died in some neglect in 1973).

Keane also studied at the London School of Economics in the early 1960s, and worked with saxophonist Jack Sharpe for a short time in 1960, and with pianist Michael Garrick in 1963-5. He added flugelhorn as well as trumpet to his instrumentation, and after the break-up of the Harriott Quintet, moved to Germany for a time, where he joined the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra in Cologne.

He was also featured with the famous Clarke-Boland Big Band, co-led by expatriate American drummer Kenny Clarke and Belgian pianist Francy Boland, another ground-breaking European band of the period, albeit in a different style.

He was appointed to the position of director of culture on his native St Vincent in 1972, but did not adapt well to the disciplines of the bureaucratic life. He moved on to an academic post as principal of Bishop's College in Georgetown, but lost that job after the breakdown of his second marriage in 1979. A third marriage took him to New York, where he lived in Brooklyn thoughout the Eighties, writing arrangements and playing music in local bands, but rarely leaving the area.

He published more poetry, including The Volcano Suite, inspired by an eruption on St Vincent, and One A Week With Water. An invitation to play at a festival in Barbados in 1989 aroused his serious interest in music again, and Michael Garrick involved him in his re-creation of the Harriott Quintet for a British tour that same year, although his former technical and expressive command of the trumpet were greatly diminished.

In 1991, the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson made a film in which Keane talked about his artistic and personal experiences as a Carribean immigrant in London, and he continued to play intermittently up until his death from the effects of stomach cancer.

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