(unfortunately) fooling his self
keeps a handkerchief
cross my horn / don’t record a
lick—they won’t steal me
freddie was not the first and certainly was far from the last to think he could avoid being used by opting not to belly up to the capitalist roulette wheel of commercialization, not to get bumped to the curb by the pick-and-roll of economic exploitation combined with technical innovation. everytime the man comes up with a new machine, invariably the new machines end up being, among other things, another cash-generating tool—and all in the name of progress and progressiveness.
but paradoxically beyond the obvious remunerative inequities and the misplaced hosannas to pretenders posturing as kings, the real rough side of the mountain is the inevitable further behind we fall if we refuse to use what little opportunity the new technology presents. when we decline to play we are ignored, when we do play we are exploited; but at least when you play you get a hearing even if someone else’s echo of your sound makes more dough than do you the originator.
moreover, it was the technology of being heard that enabled jazz to spread its wings. the music could never have flown worldwide were it not for recordings, were it not for musicians everywhere being able to “hear” what these wild new sounds sounded like. our music could not be explained with words or written down with symbols, had to be eared to be appreciated. contradictions abound, were it not for the technology the music would not have spread and simultaneously the technology was used to exploit—a nutshell synopsis of african american relations to the modernist means of production.
of course, some of us, saw the downside coming so we attempted to duck. working with the limited vision that we oppressed people often manifest, somehow freddie thought he could lessen the impact of cultural appropriation by refusing to play the game. fat chance. which is why few jazz fans know the name freddie keppard. don’t even know what instrument he played, when or where, or why he should be known.
the lesson of brother keppard is a hard dose to swallow but when you are on the black unskilled-labor end of america’s 20th-century economy you don’t have many choices. you can throw a hankerchief up over your shit if you want to, attempting to hide the specifics of your fingering, how you do the things you do, you can petulantly sit in the corner with your face to the wall while the parade marches past, you can even bark out curses at the seemingly endless procession of white rip-off artists, but as the poet said centuries ago, the dogs who hang in the camp may bark but the caravan moves on.
and though freddie keppard was the uncrowned king of new orleans trumpet playing in the wake of buddy’s incarceration and oliver’s departure, nonetheless his name is seldom mentioned in the chronology of jazz trumpeting precisely because he was eclipsed by nick larocca and crew who were wise enough not to pass up the opportunity to play their sincere but nonetheless insubstantial versions/revisions into a rca victor machine thus assuring themselves the “we-was-here-first claim”—the original dixieland jass band in 1917 was the first to record a jazz record while freddie keppard stood on the sidelines, smiling as he stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. you see, after one listen to the pale cacophony recorded by odjb, freddie was confident that they never were able to capture even an approximation of his sound. he won the authenticity battle but loss the jazz war. pale though they be, we know what larocca sounded like. and keppard, well he’s just a footnote fanatics and academics point to. time and time again, the truth marches on: even when we can’t win, even when the deck is stacked and our getting hustled is a foregone conclusion, even then if we don’t play, we’re worse off than if we play and lose. in the long run, our only chance is to play, to keep on losing until we win because if we don’t play for sure we will never win.
—kalamu ya salaam