Thursday, 18 July 2013

3. Freddie Keppard

Freddie Keppard was, by all accounts, long past his prime by the time he was finally recorded. He was one of that first class of New Orleans musicians in the first decade of the 20th Century to play what we would today call jazz. Though his powers were diminished by the time of the recording we’re about to hear, it is through him that we can perhaps get an inkling of the music of that first decade of jazz.

Freddie Keppard (from Red Hot Jazz Archive).

Keppard, a former shoeshine boy on Basin Street, took Buddy Bolden’s spot on cornet in the Eagle Band - formerly the Bolden Band, founded 1895 - when Bolden was incapacitated. Those who saw him at his peak say Keppard played very much in the Bolden style, which meant a penetrating, ringing, melodic tone, used to rhythmically lead the band. Bolden was credited with inventing, or at least popularising, the “Big Four” beat (see Wynton Marsalis’ explanation here: Big Four beat ), so Keppard’s role in the Eagle Band was very much to propel the other players.

King Keppard

After Bolden, he was the second to be called “King” – at the age of 16 - by other New Orleans musicians.

The side I’ve chosen to demonstrate Keppard’s style is Stock Yards Strut, recorded by Freddie Keppard's Jazz Cardinals in September 1926. That’s nearly 10 years after the ODJB’s first side, but, with the caveats discussed in the previous post, we’re going to assume that Keppard’s style hadn’t changed much since the first decade of the century. Keppard had left New Orleans in about 1914, maybe a little earlier, to take his music first to Los Angeles, and then from coast to coast and points in between, and it seems reasonable to assume, with the benefit of contemporary accounts, that his style had fully developed by that time. Tantalisingly, we’re told he was offered a recording date in 1915, but turned it down, according to legend because he was afraid other musicians would cop his licks. (More probably it was because as a professional, urban musician, he knew his worth, and didn’t think much of the terms he’d been offered). Either way, he missed out on the chance to lead the first jazz band on record.

While he was a great player, he was not really an innovator. What we hear him play is, more or less, what he learned from Bolden. Those who heard both in the flesh attest to this. (eg Peter Bocage, quoted in Marquis, D, 1978, In Search of Buddy Bolden,  "[Bolden and Keppard] were most on the same style.  The improvisations is always gonna be a little different, no two men alike". p105).

The first thing to notice is how much it is Keppard who rhythmically propels the tune. The nominal rhythm section of Arthur Campbell on piano, and Jasper Taylor on woodblocks (a compromise drummers came up with so as not to overwhelm the recording equipment) follows Keppard rather than the other way round, so much so that you can hear them fumble when Keppard drops out.


The next thing to notice is that New Orleans polyphony. This is the vital feature of early New Orleans jazz; the ensemble improvising that went on between cornet, clarinet (here played by the great Johnny Dodds) and trombone (Eddie Vincent).

Those three instruments essentially take different parts of the chord: trombone plays the root note; cornet (or trumpet) takes the middle part of the chord, where the main melody will be voiced; and clarinet – most agile of the three – uses the highest notes to arpeggiate patterns like the cast iron filigree work of New Orleans balconies. By knowing their respective roles, they can then weave in and out of each other, improvising counterpoint and harmonies, each contributing their own individual character, and with the whole greater than the parts. That ensemble polyphony is perhaps little changed from what we think went on in Bolden’s day.

A window on the early years of jazz

Like his mentor, Keppard was an alcoholic, and died in 1933, aged only 44.

So there we have it, King Keppard: second king of jazz, in decline by the time we get to hear him, but his recordings are the frosty window through which we can glimpse the beginnings. (Although, again, I'd remind you that this was recorded in 1926).

Keppard on CD
You can get Freddie Keppard tracks on several New Orleans era compilation CDs, but he only recorded 24 tracks, and they are all on “Freddie Keppard, the Complete Set 1923-26”, on the Retrieval imprint of Challenge Records.  It is recommended by Morton and Cook in the Penguin Jazz Guide as having much better sound quality than previous CD issues.

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