Freddie Keppard graced less than thirty recorded sides with his presence, all from within a five-year period that was supposedly way past his prime. Yet collectors, historians and especially musicians still lionize the cornetist to this day. What makes Keppard so special?
Give him fifty seconds:
“Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” starts with Keppard playing lead in an arranged front line. His sound is straight and balanced, neither covering the harmonies nor letting them stick out, serving the section and not himself. Then, a regal ascending figure introduces Keppard as soloist.
His four-note “doo, doo dah-DEE” entrance plays with super subtle variations of note length, pitch, and articulation that shift the tune’s theme across bar lines. His vibrato is a deeply personal touch that makes sustained notes into signatures. He pulls back as the musical line descends, setting up for a more even, three-note, short-short-long variation of the first phrase capped by a relaxed longer note and the descending phrase more assertive this time.
The third phrase is utter swagger, with slight delays and anticipations that defy notation. The final lick practically yells “come on, come on!” before doing a two-step.
That was just eight bars.
The second eight bars work off similar variation, including a brief on-the-beat phrase perhaps parodying players not as hip as Keppard. The bridge, on the other hand, starts with the side of Keppard lost amidst his more pugilistic outbursts on record and stories about his prodigious taste for alcohol: the well-rounded musician who could play soft and sensitively whether it was with blues or society bands.
Then, another held note and an opening of tone—not a crescendo of volume but of timbre—leading into a spiky, syncopated line pointing back to the “Spanish tinge” and the Charleston.
The last section of this first chorus begins with little more than a grace note into the longest note of the chorus and Keppard eliding the melody into sheer tone, letting the chomping rhythm section pop through. Unlike Bechet’s vibrato (and more like Bechet’s tone), Keppard’s vibrato cuts as it shakes. It throbs ahead of the beat as well as on top of the pitch. Keppard could make a whole note stomp.
From there, syncopated eighth and quarter notes keep the groove going into the bugling sound from the introduction, bridging into Keppard once again leading the band.
Less than a minute, no chordal extemporization but plenty of rhythmic nuance and color, with lots of space and even more attitude. This style of improvisation, which treats the melody as a road rather than a suggested destination, is sometimes referred to “melodic paraphrase.” Imagine telling Freddie Keppard that.
Thank you for this blog, Andrew! King Keppard is one of my heroes, and “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” is on my list of Desert Island discs!
Thanks, Hal! I love Keppard’s music too, and even after hearing this track many times over the years, found myself rewinding that first chorus repeatedly.
Dear Mister Sammut, that is one gorgeous piece of writing and calm unhurried jubilant musical analysis. I am admiring and envious that I never had the wit to write something as pointed as “Keppard could make a whole note stomp.” Let it be said that Sammut can write stomping lovely sentences that, taken together, add up to a whole ‘nother world of sensitive hearing and prose that isn’t prosaic.
I posted the Keppard piece on FB and got nice reactions from Allen Lowe and Hal —
my preface: My friend and role model Andrew Sammut — who wisely retreated from Facebook — writes an astonishing blog called THE POP OF YESTERCENTURY about early jazz and early music. He’s just published one about Freddie Keppard that should be read for the prose, for the insights, and for the sensitivity. Andrew’s writing swings:
On Sun, Apr 21, 2019 at 12:15 PM The Pop of Yestercentury wrote:
> AJS posted: “Freddie Keppard graced less than thirty recorded sides with > his presence, all from within a five-year period that was supposedly way > past his prime. Yet collectors, historians and especially musicians still > lionize the cornetist to this day. What makes Ke” >
Nice work, Andrew. Granular analysis is pretty rare.
Thanks, Steve. This is an interesting and enjoyable solo to listen to a few seconds at a time.