Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fate Marable: Father Of Pittsburgh Jazz

Fate Marable Band from Traditional Jazz

Fate Marable was born in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1890 and learned to play piano from the lap of his mother. He was taught well, too, playing professionally by his ninth birthday.

In 1907, at the of age 17, he began entertaining on the steamboats that churned up and down the Mississippi River. Marable started out playing on the paddlewheeler "JS 1" as part of duet - he tickled the ivories alongside a violinist - but soon picked up players and became a cruise bandleader.

He worked for Captain Joe Streckfus' Line, which featured dances on their bread-and-butter day trip excursions. His cruises plied the Mississippi from New Orleans to points northeast along the Ohio. Streckfus considered his boats "floating ballrooms" and was a hands-on operator, attending every rehearsal and critiquing the performance.

Marable dug the jazz sound being played in the delta and soon incorporated it into his playlist, picking up players from NOLA and along the river towns who were familiar with the music. His musicians were more than just jazz cats, though. They had to keep the customers happy and the boat's dance floor full, so his card included jazz, ragtime, standards and current tunes.

The bandleader was a technician and perfectionist, only tolerating artists who were professional in their craft and able to play music from a sheet, but allowing those with the chops to improvise. His groups went under the banner of the Society Syncopators, Kentucky Jazz Band, Metropolitan Jaz-E-Saz Orchestra and the Jazz Maniacs.

The band served as a musical doctorate program for those who would eventually become a who's who of early jazz artists - Louis Armstrong, Baby and Johnny Dodds, Zutty Singleton, King Oliver, Johnny St. Cyr, Tommy Ladnier, Red Allen, Pops Foster, Narvin Kimball, Gene Sedric, Jimmy Blanton, Earl Bostic and Al Morgan were numbered among its members.They spread the sound of jazz from its Big Easy birthplace throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valley towns, traveling as far north as St. Paul and east to Pittsburgh.

By the early twenties, Marable's band was widely considered the best dance outfit not only on the river, but in the country.

Marable was famous for another thing, too - he played the boat's steam calliope, and the organ music could be heard echoing along the river for miles, announcing both the arrival of the steamship and his band. It was said that the keys would get so hot - we assume from the steam, though maybe his playing had something to do with it - that Marable had to wear gloves when he performed. He also sported a hooded raincoat while playing because the steam would condense from the pipes and rain down on him.

Like most riverboat musicians, he needed an off season gig, generally beginning after Labor Day, to keep the daily bread on the table. When the boats were drydocked for the winter, Marable would work out of his business base of St. Louis, his hometown of Paducah and Pittsburgh, where his family stayed while he was touring on the steamers. In fact, we believe his son, Fate Marable, is still alive and kicking in the Steel City at the age of 87.

Marable led a band and played piano at the Leader House on Wylie and Crawford Avenues (which would continue on as the Crawford Grill in 1930), the Centre Avenue Bailey Hotel, considered the elite black stopover in the City and where African-American performers playing Pittsburgh would stay, and other Hill District hot spots.

His band is thought to be one of the first pair of all-black swing orchestras performing in the city, along with Lois Deppe and the Serenaders. He also performed on the Pittsburgh steamboat circuit for their local excursions on boats like the Senator, pounding away on the calliope when he wasn't leading the band.

Not only did he expose the City to jazz, but Marable was a considered a seminal influence, sometimes called the founding father of the storied line of Pittsburgh jazz pianists like Mary Lou Williams, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal and Horace Parlan, along with local keyboardists like Dodo Marmarosa and Johnny Costa.

And while not credited to Marable publicly, we wouldn't be surprised if his calliope chops didn't help to jump start the emergence of Pittsburgh's famed Hill District organ houses and local Hammond players like Gene Ludwig, Bill Heid, Wendell Freeman and John Papi.

While he didn't personally shape any of their careers (although a couple may have sat in with his band), Marable was the man who introduced jazz to the City. He was the shadchan who started the torrid jazz love affair that would last for decades between the town and its players and continue on today.

Marable continued to lead paddlewheel bands until 1940, when an infected finger threatened to cut short his livelihood. He recovered, but that marked the end of his Pittsburgh era as he retired from the river and opted to finish out his career playing in St. Louis clubs. He died there at the age of 56 from pneumonia and was buried in his home town of Paducah.

There's not much left to mark Fate Marable's career. The only record he cut was the 1924 78 RPM "Frankie and Johnny" b/w "Pianoflage" on Okeh 40113 with the Society Syncopators, and he was light years removed from the archival You Tube vid era. But he is the Johnny Appleseed of jazz, sowing its seeds from The City That Care Forgot across the heartland. Those seeds took root deepest in Pittsburgh, helping spawn a vibrant jazz scene of national renown that is still going strong.

(Most of Fate Marable's career in Pittsburgh is mentioned only in passing in his bios. Several mainly local works note some of his contributions, primarily "The WPA History Of The Negro In Pittsburgh," written in 1940 by Lawrence Glasco. Old Mon would like to thank Paul Carosi of Pittsburgh Music History for pointing out that resource in his article.)

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