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.