Artist Spotlight: Piano Accordionist Jimmy Keane
CELTIC MKE·TUESDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2017
You grew up around music & your parents encouraged you to play, but what drew you to the piano accordion?
J: It is a bit odd to end up playing piano accordion in the 1960s for Irish traditional music, considering one of our early neighbors when we moved to Chicago from Ireland was the one and only button accordion guru Joe Cooley! I asked my parents that question a few times and they told me that the piano box was the instrument I wanted to play and not the button box. I guess they were ahead of the curve at the time when it came to creative parenting and actually listened to what their kid wanted instead of what he/she needed or should have had... ;-)
How did you get involved in the Irish music scene in Chicago? Who taught you the piano accordion and and how were you able to better your skills over the years? Because winning 5 consecutive All-Ireland titles doesn’t happen without dedication to learning the instrument and having a passion for what you’re playing.
J: Thank you for the kind words Melissa! It has always been the music which is the most important thing to me and I believe the same can be said for all the musicians I know who were fortunate enough to receive accolades such as All-Ireland titles through the years. It’s the tunes, not whatever tin you may pick up along the way which matters...
My Dad Jimmy “Horse” Keane and Mom Mary got us involved in the Irish music community from the start. In fact, the Horse came out to the States a year or so before my Mom and I arrived to Chicago to set up a home and a new life for us. And the first man I met in America was the brilliant musician Kevin Henry and since life-long friend who picked us up at the airport since Dad couldn’t get off work that day. So I was literally involved with the Irish music community from hour one...
I took some basic lessons on the accordion when I started at age 7 from an older German-American by the name of C.F. Marsh who had a music school around the corner from us on 79th Street for a year or so to get the basics of the instrument. I knew I wanted to play trad music but also knew he would not be able to teach me -- so I ended up with the best teacher of all: my ears and the wonderful, kind, and most helpful Irish musicians in Chicago.
When it comes down to it, this music is both an oral and aural tradition. I know there are tons of printed sources available now more than ever -- and an adopted Chicagoan cannot underplay the powerful collections from Captain Francis (and the unsung) James O’Neill -- but even Francis himself carried the tunes around in his head before he had the fortune to meet fellow musician James O’Neill who could transcribe the tunes to notation. So to have the likes of Kevin Henry, Johnny McGreevy, Eleanor Neary, Joe Shannon, Martin Byrnes, Tom Masterson, Cuz Teahan and many others as your guide to the world of Irish music -- how can one top that?? Well, growing up learning and playing music with Liz Carroll was definitely the topper... ;-)
The All-Ireland’s were great and it was an honor to carry back the wins to Chicago in the 1970s. Myself, Liz Carroll, Michael Flatley, Marty Fahey and a rake of musicians from the east coast were the first generation from here to stand note for note with the many brilliant musicians in Ireland and being recognized as equals was uplifting. Plus, the All-Ireland’s were a valid reason/excuse to spend time in Ireland a couple of weeks before school restarted and to meet up with musicians and make new ones. Now, since the Milwaukee Irish Fest and the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil basically run on the same weekend, the Irish Fest serves a similar purpose -- meeting old musician friends and making new ones.
Can you talk about Irish music in America? Is the scene different than what it was in the 70s? Do you think it’s becoming more prominent because of all the Irish festivals in the States? Or is it more difficult to keep the tradition alive over here versus Ireland? I know efforts are being made to preserve the music (Ward Irish Music Archives) and artists are out there getting people interested, but I’m curious about your opinion on this.
J: Overall, there are more people loving the music and more musicians playing the music than at any time in this country’s history and worldwide, too. As in any other ethnic based music, there are shifts in tastes and popularity over the years.
Whilst always strong with the core of traditional music lovers and performers (especially in large Irish populated cities and towns), you are now more likely to see musicians with no Irish connection whatsoever hooked into and playing this music we all love -- and playing it extremely well all across the US and beyond.
There are definitely more young kids playing and learning music now. When I first started learning the music in Chicago during the 1960’s, there was myself, Liz Carroll, and a bit later Michael Flatley and Marty Fahey. The next “youngest” musician up from us was at least twenty years older and above him the bulk of musicians at least twenty years older than he was. Also in the 60s, the music started growing in popularity spurred on by the rise of folk music and there were many great bands formed at that time, too. A huge credit is owed to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, and the Chieftains for opening up Irish music to the general population of America - which prompted other musicians to form groups - which prompted more traditional musicians to form bands in the 1970’s such as our own The Green Fields of America, Planxty, The Bothy Band, De Dannan, and in the 1980’s Cherish the Ladies, Altan, Dervish and in the 1990’s Lunasa, Solas and bohola (another self promotion); since then, the floodgates are wide open with many others. And don’t get me wrong, bands are great things, but to me this is still a solo tradition at heart where the tune stands on its own merits.
Coinciding with the resurgence of Irish music and its rise, there were more venues presenting concerts and by natural extension, the formation of festivals such as Milwaukee Irish Fest to showcase and bring multiple performers together to huge crowds, which in turn, spurred more interest at the local level (Mary from Topeka falls in love with the music of “Band A” whom she heard at the Irish Fest and organizes a concert for them in her town, so all her friends can share in the experience, and so on...).
The preservation of the music vis-a-vis the Ward Irish Music Archives and the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, Ireland, along with various personal collections which exist is crucial. Printed music goes back a few hundred years but recorded music only started in the late 1890’s, so it’s relatively new in the scheme of things. It’s now great that we are able to digitize things (assuming the platforms on which they are saved last), but it’s also brilliant to be able to see, possibly touch, and even smell the actual old books and recordings (like the Dunn Collection of wax cylinders you have in the Ward Archives). A few months back, Liz Carroll and I were talking about what we were going to do with our respective collections of recorded music (both commercial and personal) and the various books and memorabilia we’ve amassed through the years, and I know I’ve decided to donate mine to the Ward Irish Music Archives as I’d hate to see it end up in the Waste Management Archive... ;-)
You’ve had many musical collaborations throughout your career -- what does it mean to you to be able to play with other reputable Irish musicians? I always sense pride in the traditional Irish music scene (and the Irish culture in general) whenever I see artists join other artists for tunes, whether on a big stage, on an album, or at a pub session, because of the passion they all share. Can you comment on that?
J: Personally, I prefer to play with disreputable Irish musicians...LOL
All kidding aside, I’ve been blessed by the musicians I’ve been able to play music with going back to when I first started. Being able to share the music with someone of like mind, to learn a new twist on a tune, or learn a new tune completely, to have an actual musical conversation between two instruments - to respond musically to a phrase instantly (you really need to listen to the person who is playing with you to do so) - these are all my favorite things about the music. Meeting another Irish musician for the first time and be able to sit down and play a few tunes before you even have their name locked into the memory banks is quite exhilarating and is one of the best things about this music we love and share.
This may be a typical question, but what is your goal with playing and performing? Is there something specific you want people to take away after attending one of your shows or hearing your music?
J: People always ask me, “Why do you play with your eyes closed?” - I respond to them that when I was starting out, I did not liking playing in public, so my Mom told me to close my eyes and pretend I was at home playing at the kitchen table. So to this day, I do the same and I hope that I am able to share what that feeling is of playing this great and beautiful music with another listener - just as if he or she were sitting in my folks kitchen listening to me play.