Like many of the best and earliest New Orleans jazz musicians, Freddie Keppard’s name is inextricably linked with that of Buddy Bolden. He was the next King of Jazz in town, directly following Bolden’s surrender of the title and perhaps his sanity. While many say that Bolden’s sound is the sound that got away, Keppard offers an insight into that particular sound, the wild, cavernous grind of jazz’s first king.
While not a student of Bolden, Keppard was seriously influenced by his predecessor. No recordings of Buddy Bolden exist, so Keppard’s hint at what he sounded like. Keppard’s reign was short, sandwiched between Bolden, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, and his reputation not nearly as well known. But because of his devotion to Bolden’s style, Keppard’s singular importance is often overlooked. That he remained skeptical of recordings while based in New Orleans is one of the oldest, saddest tragedies of early jazz, as many of its best players were leery of the practice. Luckily, Keppard came to embrace the new practice before he died.
Keppard grew up on Villere Street, and worked Basin Street as a shoe shine. Originally a stringed instrument player—mandolin and violin—by his mid-teens the musician had switched to cornet. Keppard’s ability to improvise was based on a deeper knowledge of the musical language. Much like Sidney Bechet, he developed an early following throughout New Orleans.
Keppard did cater to the Buddy Bolden sound, but he wasn’t an imitator. Having the mandolin, accordion and violin in his musical makeup expanded his sense of possibilities for the sound of his horn. Without eliminating the ragged component Bolden brought, Keppard brought nuance to the driving music, a hoarse rhythmic understanding. No doubt he loved the ragged blues style. As new innovators brought their own personalities into the still forming aural universe of jazz, he never strayed from that original style. What is most apparent on Keppard recordings such as “Salty Dog,” “High Fever,” and “The Memphis Maybe Man” is his own inflated sound, each note busy with historical imperative, assured of Keppard’s take. His improvisations were less furious, weighted in the song at hand. Said to be past his prime when he recorded in Chicago, Keppard’s cornet retained the vitality of the first years of jazz and adhered strictly to that rangy adventurous New Orleans sound. Even as other New Orleans players including King Oliver and Louis Armstrong sought to move the music into the next realm, Keppard was at his best playing the songs the way he first had.
When first approached in 1916 to make a recording, which would have become one of, if not the first jazz outing on record, Keppard said no. For a century, people have insisted this was because he feared his style would be stolen—the same reason most other New Orleans musicians gave. In the liner notes for the collection Freddie Keppard: The Complete Set: 1923-1926, Mark Beresford reports that Keppard declined the test session because the session offered no payment, also common practice at the time. Another story allows that Keppard was offered money to record, 25 dollars, and that he laughed at the offer.
Along with Kid Ory, Keppard was among the first to bring the sound of New Orleans jazz to the West Coast, reportedly as early as 1912. His band at the time was the Olympia Jazz Orchestra, but upon hitting the West Coast his band took the name “Original Creole Band,” leaving “I Wish I That I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate” writer Armand Piron to helm his former band with Joe “King” Oliver serving as Keppard’s replacement on cornet.
Keppard followed instinct and sound, and where he went, jazz followed. After recording had become more acceptable, Keppard pushed play and struck up the band a number of times. Due to poor record keeping, there is much confusion and argument about just what his canon is, but his sound is undeniable to connoisseurs as he beat a jaunty cadence on the horn. Louis Armstrong brought the cornetist into leader Erskine Tate’s famous Chicago band because Keppard’s style freely acknowledged the sound that Armstrong grew up on.
Where Bechet let the blues filter in and out with elegantly punctuated solos, Keppard’s horn lines supplied a knock-kneed and ragged punch. New Orleans at that time was drenched in different social mores. The culture of Creole society, the history of Congo Square, the Storyville District, all allowed for the lackadaisical astronomy of sound that became most associated with the city. Keppard’s role is physically as important as it is culturally. His technique, his breathing and his pitch define the traditional sound to this day. His strict adherence to this original style propelled it well beyond his own life span, which was not long. Keppard died at the age of 44 after a five-year battle with tuberculosis. His reign as Jazz King of New Orleans was then in the rear view mirror of his life, but it remains undeniable looking back across the century.