Farewell to Laith Keilany, A Friend of the City (and of everyone)

Modern Dancers in Krutch Park with Laith Keilany on Guitar, Knoxville, Fall 2012

I said earlier this week that I’d have two remembrances of people who made our city a better place. Today we remember Laith Keilany who, in addition to being a wonderful musician, was an even better human. While I didn’t know him well, he touched my life like he touched so many people. Laith died in May after many years of physical struggles. A Celebration of Life will be held this afternoon at 4:00 pm at The Episcopal School of Knoxville.

I thought I remembered the day I met Laith. I listened to Preston Davis play double bass while Laith played Oud in Krutch Park on an absolutely perfect urban day. This was August 2012 and I’m sure that’s the day I met Preston, Whitney Davidson, and Karl Hess. But it turns out, Laith’s picture had been featured here at several events earlier that year. One quality of Laith was that he made you feel immediately like a friend. Another was that you felt you’d known him for years. He really tuned in to everyone he encountered. That afternoon in the park is one of my best memories of my fifteen years living in downtown Knoxville.

In those early years, I photographed him many times, generally playing oud, but sometimes playing guitar. He played often with Jodi Manross, his musical partner and best friend for many years. He also popped up often with Jack Rentfro throwing down some manner of craziness, generally involving the Apocalypso Quartet. Often in the background, being his unassuming self, he would be the thread that held it all together.

Laith Keilany (rare view of his face – usually hunched over an oud), Musician’s Musician, Knoxville, Spring 2012
Laith Keilany, International Biscuit , Festival, Union Avenue Books, Knoxville, May 2012
Ben Maney and Laith Keilany with Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet,
Relix Theater, Knoxville, June 2012
Laith Keilany and Preston Davis, Krutch Park, Knoxville, August 2012
Jodie Manross and Laith Keilany, Metro Pulse Metrofest 2012, Knoxville, September 2012
Laith Keilany with Jodie Manross, Metro Pulse Metrofest 2012, Knoxville, September 2012
Laith Keilany with Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet, Blue Plate Special, WDVX, Knoxville, December 2012
Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville, December 2012
Laith Keilany and Amanda Rose Cagle, End of the World Party, Preservation Pub, Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet, December 2012

For a while, Laith was everywhere. I learned about his lovely jewelry and bought Urban Woman one of his tree necklaces that she loved. I learned that Laith offered guitar lessons and talked to him about signing up, though I never did. I photographed him at the Blue Plate, the Children’s Festival of Books, Relix, Krutch Park, Preservation Pub, Ijams, and other spots. I can’t find all the photos and I wish we’d intersected after I got a better camera and learned more what to do with it.

Through those early years, I knew he had some sort of history of physical struggles, but I never asked. It seemed he was everywhere I went (or I went everywhere he played) in 2012 and 2013. Then it slowed. As far as I can find, I photographed him once in 2014 and once in 2015. At some point he moved to Chattanooga.

He very kindly reached out to me in 2019 when he learned my brother died. Despite the fact that he continued with his own medical struggles, he minimized that and offered support. He said he hoped to get back into Knoxville more in 2020. We all had lots of plans for 2020, didn’t we? He reached out one more time, in April 2020 with the news that he had new music.

Charity Edwards with Preston Davis and Laith Keilany, Ijams, March 2013
Laith Keilany at Shakesfest, East Tennessee History Center Knoxville, April 2013
Laith Keilany, Jodi Manross, and Russell Tanenbaum Preservation Pub, August 2013
Laith Keilany, Preservation Pub, August 2013
Laith Keilany, Preservation Pub, Knoxville, November 2013
Laith Keilany with Casey Jones, Preservation Pub Speakeasy, December 2013

Of course he had new music. As always, Laith found a way to be creative, human, and to give to others even at the worst moment. He and Wil Wright had joined (long distance) for a short collaboration, which I’ve linked below. It needs to be heard by more people.

Of Laith I said in that article:

Laith Keilany is one of the most gentle and kind humans I’ve ever met. I still remember him in . . . Krutch Park in 2012 playing his oud while Preston Davis played the double bass. Later I’d see him perform with the Apocalypso Quartet and numerous times with Jodie Manross. One of my wife’s favorite necklaces was made by Laith, who is a talented jewelry maker. As many times as I’ve heard him play, it’s the Krutch Park performance that I cherish the most.

Of course, when I interviewed Laith for the article, he gave all the credit to Wil. The music is transportive and brilliant. You can enjoy it here.

We messaged once more when he saw me being attacked online during all the COVID tensions and he stood up to someone on my behalf. Tenderhearted as ever, he wrote me privately, expressing hope he hadn’t been too harsh to the person. The last sentence he sent to me was “Well, you know a lot of us love you, love what you do and have your back.” That was Laith.

Laith Keilany, Waynestock Night Two, Relix, Knoxville, January 2014
Jodie Manross and Laith Keilany, Children’s Festival of Reading, Knoxville, May 2015

I’ll conclude with a more complete look at Laith’s life via the obituary written by Jodi:

John Laith Keilany, aged 48, passed away peacefully on May 19, 2024, at Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga. He was born on September 19, 1975, in Chattanooga into a loving family with devoted parents, Rose and Ziad, and brother, Paul. John Laith Keilany is also survived by his uncle, Paul Jamushian, Fresno, CA and his aunt, Sheila Johnson, Upland, CA.

Laith started his education at Bright School, then finished his Junior and High School years at Baylor School. After High School, Laith attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in English.

Laith possessed many gifts, but none shone as brightly as his passion for music and his boundless generosity and compassion. Laith’s kindness and joy touched the hearts of all who had the privilege of knowing him. Whether he was enchanting audiences with his music or simply brightening someone’s day with a smile, Laith had a remarkable ability to make everyone feel seen, heard, and understood.

Laith’s talents were nothing short of brilliant. He was a gifted musician who loved to perform and create music that moved people. Laith’s music gave the world unforgettable moments. Whether on grand stages like opening for legend B.B. King, teaching guitar students how to create their own magic, jamming on guitar and oud with his friends, or collaborating with esteemed choreographers and dance companies, Laith’s music had the power to uplift, inspire, and unite. He absolutely loved being a guitar and ukulele teacher, whether at Pick and Grin, at his home studio, and especially at the Episcopal School of Knoxville (ESK) as their string band teacher until 2019.

Beyond his musical talent, Laith will be remembered most for his spirit – one characterized by unparalleled kindness and compassion. Despite personal health setbacks over the years, he exuded love – for his family, his friends, and even strangers. Laith’s acts of caring were not just occasional gestures; they were a way of life for him. Whether it was offering a listening ear, a needed joke, or a comforting hug, he never hesitated to offer support to those around him. Ever.

Laith conveyed his own thoughts about death many years ago, sharing words to offer comfort to others at the time, and that, in true Laith fashion, may offer solace now:

“When you lose someone, it helps when you realize that they are now in a more beautiful place than we can dream of. And that feeling of loss can be remedied by letting sadness change to faith in love. We have to keep loving the people in our lives, even when it feels like a burden. Love is what makes us feel most alive.”

May Laith’s memory serve as a reminder of the power of kindness, generosity, and most of all love. He was the brightest light with the kindest heart.

Amen. If you knew and loved Laith (really the same thing), join us this afternoon at the Episcopal School of Knoxville.

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