Freddie Keppard’s entire discography fits on one compact disc. It’s an ironically modest recorded legacy, especially for someone who was known for everything but modesty in their lifetime.
By most accounts Keppard was proud to the point of arrogance. He came up through the ranks of New Orleans cornetists, drew crowds on the vaudeville circuit of both coasts and was more than willing to proclaim and demonstrate his musical prowess. A photograph of the cornetist, dressed smart but tough in double-breasted suit, wide brimmed Boss of the Plains Stetson and ornate lapel medal, looking out intently with a touch of haughtiness, provides a visual allegory of the musician that no less than Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet would praise years after his passing.
Keppard’s few recordings provide teasing glimpses of his huge sound and dominating style on cornet. In Keppard’s time jazz was still transitioning from collective ingredient to solo expression. The cornet was intended to provide a solid lead, with power and color supporting an ensemble. Extended solo outings, decorous lines and multi-chorus explorations wouldn’t come into play until one of Keppard’s younger New Orleans colleagues arrived on the scene.
In addition, most of Keppard’s recordings were cut with Doc Cooke‘s large dance orchestra, in which Keppard actually played the second horn part, not lead. Keppard’s role was to heat things up during an out chorus, or contribute intense but short breaks to Cooke’s written arrangements. Many of Keppard’s sides also suffer from the worst indignities of twenties audio technology. It’s a miracle anyone still cares about this loud-mouthed ensemble player.
True to reputation, Keppard demands attention. The Cooke band’s sides on Columbia Records’ certainly help: a pristine electric recording process and the diffuse acoustics of an empty hotel ballroom capture the Cooke band cutting loose on some of their hottest charts. Keppard’s brash interjection on the aptly named “High Fever” [at 0:23 in the following clip] doesn’t have anything to prove; though brief, its cocky stride tells the listener Keppard knows exactly “who he is”:
Following the piano solo, Keppard’s blasting riffs behind lead cornet Elwood Graham [at 1:07] might not provide the best instruction in providing accompaniment. Yet Keppard wasn’t there to teach or blend or simply be heard; his presence was meant to be felt. By the time the closing “dog fight” arrives [at 2:15], whatever name was written on the lead part becomes moot. This is Keppard’s tune, with driving phrases and an infectiously “funky” break [at 2:26] bringing it to a close.
Keppard isn’t doing much technically, but his impact on the Cooke band is immense. A few months later, he brings an equally gripping effect to the clean, almost concert band-like reading of the opening theme on “Sidewalk Blues,” an interpretation that he seems to self-parody and then detonate for the ride out [starting at 2:12 in this clip]:
Keppard’s hair-trigger change is the type of “sweet to hot” juxtaposition that twenties bandleaders loved to include in even their most straight-laced material. Yet Keppard’s changeover also reminds us of the brash, occasionally volatile personality he was known for. Perhaps his most powerful maneuver was turning down an offer from Victor Records to record in 1916. The reasons for Keppard’s refusal are now legend, ranging from a concern that listeners could “steal his stuff” to balking at having to record a test pressing without pay (standard operating procedure for record labels at the time).
Whatever his motivations, they point to a man who refused anything short of what he wanted. They also point towards the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s session of February 26, 1917, considered to be the first “jazz” recording ever made, courtesy of a group of “non-improvising White musicians” and an event still debated (and despised) on both musical and cultural grounds.
Whatever else might be said of Freddie Keppard’s music or his personality, even his smallest gestures had huge consequences. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.