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Though he had some success as a jazz guitarist, Keane found his true niche scoring documentaries. (He has the Emmys to prove it.)

Brian Keane was born into a musical family. The Westport native’s mother was an avant-garde composer, while his father was a gifted Irish tenor, so it was no surprise when he gravitated toward music.

“I had a paper route when I was younger, and bought my first guitar, a 1958 Stratocaster, which would be worth about $80,000 today, and I got it for $75,” Keane says. “I started playing in rock bands, with my first gig being in the sixth grade. I started composing soon after. I would hear things and wanted to put them together.”

As he got older, Keane studied music and became a world-class jazz guitarist, performing with many of the musical greats of the ’70s. And though he had some success as a recording artist for Blue Note Records — most notably in a guitar duo with Larry Coryell — he would find his biggest triumph in another area of the music business: as a film composer and scorer. “I naturally drifted into it,” he says. “I was doing really bad vanity demos in a friend’s recording studio and scrapping it out, playing bars six to seven times a week, but making pretty good money.”

While working in that Norwalk studio, Keane met husband-and-wife directors Jim Burroughs and Suzanne Bauman, who were working on an industry film about taking care of your teeth. Keane put together a band to provide the music.

A few years later, while the filmmakers were in Key West, Florida, they contacted Keane about a documentary they were doing about the Mariel boatlift incident in 1980, when many Cubans fled for the U.S. “They didn’t know what to do about the music, and no one really did music for documentaries back then, so they said, ‘Let’s get the teeth guy,’ ” Keane says. That documentary — his first — became PBS’ A Cuban Odyssey, which went on to be nominated for an Academy Award.

That led to more offers of documentary scoring. Over his career, he’s scored hundreds of films, TV shows and documentaries, and produced more than 150 albums, mostly from his home-studio in the woods of Monroe. “I never planned on being a documentary maker. I wanted to get my record deal,” Keane says. “And I did; I signed a deal with Capitol, but it was at a point that I was so busy doing films and record production that I had to step out of the deal.”

Keane’s lifetime of musical works will next land him in the New England Music Hall of Fame, where he will join other 2021 inductees, including the late Muddy Waters and his son, Mud Morganfield; blues greats James Cotton, James Montgomery and Duke Robillard; and John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band.

In 1988, Keane scored Chimps: So like Us, the Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated documentary that put Jane Goodall’s work in the public eye. One of his most popular scores is for New York, the Emmy-winning documentary series by Ric Burns, and one of the top-selling documentaries of all-time.

“My process is I watch the whole film all the way through, because I want to see it the same way a viewer is going to see it,” Keane says. “I have a pencil and paper in hand, and I write down what I think it needs both emotionally and structurally. I also talk with the director about what they mean to do.”

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The composer poses with one of his many career awards.

Once his ideas are in place, he composes away from the film, wanting to ensure the melody is strong and the emotional focus is solidified. When finished, he puts the music to the film. “Once you do that, it jumps above the finite limitations of your creativity, because there’s an element of chance. You don’t know how the music will interact with the film. When you play with it, quite often magic happens,” he says. “When you get those magic moments, you can use your chops to orchestrate around to make the work more powerful.”

Some of his favorite documentary subjects that he’s worked on include the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the National Enquirer and the battle over Citizen Kane.

As his scores piled up, the soundtracks for the films became records, and Keane became an in-demand record producer. One of his big successes was the Grammy-winning Long Journey Home, which included a soundtrack of notable artists including Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and the Chieftains. He also produced Winter’s Solstice, a record series for Windham Hill Records, and is well known for his groundbreaking recordings with Middle Eastern musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Irish musician Joanie Madden and many others.

Keane’s music has also been heard in feature films including Spy Game, The Descendants and Free Willy, and on television including the 2012 Barry Levinson-directed Copper for the BBC. It’s been performed by symphony orchestras throughout the world, such as the London Symphony, the Boston Pops Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony. Another notable accomplishment came in 2014 when Keane created a search system for his vast musical catalog of approximately 8,000 compositions. By turning his library into a searchable online database for film and television professionals, he was able to lease his collection to Disney. As a result, his music has found its way into many projects.

Today, the 68-year-old considers himself “semi-retired,” though he can still be coaxed to do the occasional project. He also regularly composes, lectures and serves as a mentor to other composers. His more recent projects include scoring the film Oliver Sacks, working on the documentary Driving While Black for PBS and scoring the HBO special on Ralph Lauren, Very Ralph. “I used to do 25 projects a year, but now I do maybe six or seven,” Keane says. “You can’t ever give up music. You do it because you love it.” 

Online: briankeanemusic.com

This article appears in the August 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.