Story of Fate Marable
Legendary St. Louis Pianist
Made Riverboat Jazz History
by BEULAH SCHACHT
ON THE COVER
FATE MARABLE, — Born in Paducah, Ky., Dec. 2, 1890. His mother was a piano teacher, who forbade him to touch the instrument, but he experimented with it in her absence, until overhearing him, she relented, gave him instruction, and taught him to read. He started playing on river boats out of Rock Island, Ill., in 1907 and his fame as a jazz pianist spread the length of the Mississippi, from New Orleans to St. Paul. Fate gave opportunities to more young musicians, who later graduated to name bands, than any other leader of his time. Among his proteges are Louis Armstrong and the Dodds brothers.
It is strange that a pianist of such fame, talent and importance in the history of jazz should have made only one record — Okeh 40113, Pianoflage/Frankie and Johnnie (Johnny). However, this may soon be remedied by Ed Crowder, a St. Louis collector.
Pure, hot jazz mingled with the laughter of couples hurrying down the last block of cobbled Washington Avenue to ward the paddle-wheeler St. Paul with its band already warming up for the evening excursion.
It wasn’t until they boarded the boat and gathered on the dance floor that they stopped chattering long enough to realize that the music wasn’t anything like St. Louis’ own Gene Rodemich had played for their dancing pleasure in 1918, the year before.
What’s more, the entire orchestra was made up of Negroes whose leader, a light-complexioned Paducah, Ky., man of 27, made the keys jump under his commanding fingers. It was the first Negro organization to play on one of the excursion boats[,] which came up from New Orleans.
Fate Marable, the leader, who is now a legendary and historical figure in river-boat jazz, had gathered together for this band, not ragtime musicians but men whose every note was a sample of undiluted New Orleans jazz.
Johnny St. Cyr strummed the banjo, Warren “Baby” Dodds hammered the skins, George “Pops” Foster beat the bass, “Baby” Ridgeley handled the trombone, Davey Jones played an unusual instrument called a “melophone,” a big brass horn with several coils and a big bell; Paul Dominguez took care of the violin, Sam Dutrey blew clarinet, and Norman Mason blew hard into one of the trumpets.
The other trumpeter was a sweet-lipped kid named Louis Armstrong, who at 18 formed the core of the band through sheer ability. He was just learning to read music from Davey Jones, who used to say: “Louis, you can blow and you can swing because it’s natural to you. But you’ll never be able to swing any better than you already know how until you learn to read. Then you can swing in ways you never thought of before!”
The boys were putting their all into that first St. Louis May-night excursion, but the dancers, like the diners tasting a new dish, took the first two or three samples without enthusiasm. “Finally, after the intermission,” related Fate Marable, who gave up his orchestra in 1940 and is now playing piano, alone, at the Victorian Club, 3719 Washington Blvd., “We got a little spasmodic applause, but the people were completely amazed at our type of music. You could tell, though, that they were beginning to like it.”
It was at that point that the New Orleans “cats” bit into St. Louis Blues. The power of Armstrong’s trumpet sent the famous W. C. Handy composition bouncing off the boat to the shores in both directions, and the St. Louisians, still like diners, gobbled up the new music with deafening applause and asked for the recipe.
News of the find spread like sunshine, and, in 1920 and 1921, Fate Marable’s band was considered the best dance band in the United States.
“It was an entirely different kind music,” explained Marable, “than the ragtime which preceded it or the swing which followed. While ragtime, like jazz, was born and bred in New Orleans, St. Louis accepted it and some of the finest ‘rags’ ever written were written here.”
The first popular “rag” set down on paper was “Harlem Rag,” written and published in 1895 (1897) by Tom Turpin, a St. Louis pianist, who also wrote “St. Louis Rag” and the “Bowery Buck.”
Four years later, Scott Joplin’s ever-popular “Maple Leaf Rag” swept down the Mississippi from St. Louis and became the toast of the birthplace of ragtime.
Other local pianists and composers followed suit, making musical history in the persons of Sammy Paterson (Patterson), Louis Chauvin, Charlie Thompson, Robert Hampton, Walter Farrington and Johnny Arnold.
Marable himself began his riverboat career in 1907 as a ragtime pianist on the Steamboat J.S. No. 1, owned by the Acme Packet Company, out of Rock Island, Ill.
“It sailed to New Orleans that year with me at the piano, and a white fellow playing the violin. That’s all we had. Each year,” Marable continued, “we added one more piece until we had what we thought was a great big band. Four pieces — piano, violin, trumpet and drums. All of them were white boys but me, and playing strictly ragtime.”
The “great 4-piece band” played the old J.S. until 1910, when the boat burned. Then Capt. John Streckfus bought the Diamond Jo Packet Company, with boats including the St. Paul, the Quincy which later became the second J.S., the Dubuque and the Sidney. The latter was immediately turned into an excursion boat. The Sidney became Marable’s boat, but something had happened to his ideas about real music.
“We were going in and out of New Orleans all the time,” he explained, “and I began to notice the type of music they were playing there. It just got under my skin.
“Jazz was the outgrowth of Negro life in New Orleans. It developed from the chants of roustabouts loading cotton boats, singing with perfect rhythm as they lifted the bales.
“It grew out of the music played by bands[,] which accompanied funeral processions. On the way to a burial the music was solemn, with a sound marching tempo. But on the way back from the burial the musicians pepped up the marches to cheer the mourners. No matter how they deviated from the melody in improvisation, though, they still had the basic foundation of timing, and they never missed a beat.
“They took marches like ‘My Maryland,’ ‘High Society,’ ‘Panama,’ and ‘That’s a Plenty’ — playing them first just like a brass band marching down the street, every beat and every instrument clear. Then when they started improvising, the foundation was still there.”
It was this change in Marable that probed him into giving up the white band he had played with and organizing an all-Negro unit in 1917. His Kentucky Jazz Band was made up of musicians from Paducah, and, although they played jazz “real nice, they could not compare to the New Orleans boys.”
The Kentucky Jazz Band went north in 1918 with another man at the piano, while Fate was sent alone to St. Louis to advertise the opening of the steamer St. Paul. While Rodemich and his ragtime players beat it out on the dance floor, Fate played lone piano in the upper deck cafeteria, appearing on the main band stand during intermissions. The next year his record-breaking Negro band of New Orleans jazzists, with Armstrong on the trumpet, took over Rodemich’s job.
Armstrong left in 1921 for a shore station at Tom Anderson’s cabaret in New Orleans, and then moved on to join the famous King Oliver in Chicago.
His departure temporarily broke the back of Marable’s organization, but it was just the first graduation of many now famous instrumentalists. Floating in and out of the river boat orchestra were such notables as Jimmy Blanton, bass player, who left in 1939 to join Duke Ellington, where he remained until death silenced his hot licks a couple of years later.
“The year before Jimmy died,” Fate recalled, “a music critic asked me whom I considered the greatest instrumentalists in the country at the time. My answer was: ‘Give me Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Blanton and let the rest of the world go by.’ If Jimmy had lived, I know he would now be regarded as the greatest bass player.”
“Baby” Dodds and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr left the same year as Armstrong to join Joe “King” Oliver. Trumpeter Sidney Desvigne left in 1926.
Boyd Atkins, the violinist who wrote “Heebie-Jeebies,” departed in 1923 to lead his own group in Chicago; Irving Randolph picked up his trumpet in the late ‘20s and cast his lot with Cab Calloway and about the same time Earl Carruthers decided to play sax for Jimmie Lunceford.
Henry “Red” Allen, Jr., left in 1929 to join the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and now he is “playing trumpet second only to Louis with his own small band at the Garrick Lounge in Chicago.”
Count Basie tempted saxophonist Tab Smith away in 1935 and Nathaniel Storey drifted from place to place with his trombone, settled with Chick Webb for a while, and now plays with Jeter Pillar at Club Plantation in St. Louis.
Floyd Campbell, drummer, has his own outfit in Chicago; Eugene Sedric and saxophone joined the late “Fats” Waller, and Al Morgan left to play bass with Cab Calloway and then stepped into the Louis Jordan unit, where he now plays.
Charlie Creath and Dewey Jackson, both trumpeters, led bands in St. Louis. “Zutty” Singleton, drummer, left in the early ‘20s for spots with the Pee Wee Russell Trio, The Rhythmakers and Louis Armstrong.
“When Paul Whiteman arrived on the scene with his symphonic ideas, arrangements and what not,” Marable explained, “the Dixieland style of jazz began to peter out gradually, although with his entrance about 1921, my band was right on top of the list.
“I have played ragtime, jazz-time and swing and I believe that the Dixieland style of jazz gives a man the best chance to play what’s in him. A real jazz musician doesn’t require the other man’s thought through arrangements. He plays as a solid musician of his own making.
“Furthermore,” he added without hesitation, “I can tell a New Orleans band from a Chicago type or a St. Louis type anytime. New York, of course, doesn’t have any particular type or style — it’s everybody’s style.
“Lots of those jazz musicians couldn’t read music — never mind an arrangement. I could read myself because my mother was a piano teacher and I studied at Straight University in New Orleans, but, sometimes, there was only one man in a jazz band who could read. I firmly believe that New Orleans and Louis Armstrong have done more for the present dance band than any other factors, for the simple reason that Louis is New Orleans style personified, and he is copied by instrumentalists and singers alike.”
He told the story about Armstrong’s recording of Atkin’s “Heebie-Jeebies.” The unpredictable Louis strolled into the recording studio and eased his volcanic way along until it was his turn to sing the chorus.
He completely forgot the words, and a new type of singing called ‘scattin’ was born. After that Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and dozens of other vocalists picked up the innovation, and it was raised to extreme popularity.
“The music of today seems to lack the fire that it had in the old jazz days,” Marable reminisced, “and some of the present bands are using arrangements copied from things we did in New Orleans in 1912.
“My favorites in the field today are Benny Goodman — and let me tell you that white people can play the Negro’s jazz, although some people will say no — Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Woody Herman, the King Cole Trio and ‘Red’ Allen.”
So “the good old days” have passed for the 55-year old veteran of the riverboats[,] which touched every good-sized town from New Orleans to St. Paul. Gone are the days when happy kids under Fate’s wing waited with impish delight for Marable’s final decision on some instrumentalist being given a try.
If the unfortunate didn’t measure up to the Marable standard of a good New Orleans jazzman, the fellows in the band took an ax and placed it in his bed — just a warning that the after-such-and-such-a-date-your-services-will-no-longer-be-desired-slip was on its way.
Then there was the time when young Marable, who played the steam caliope as the boat drew near a town, was on the receiving end of a practical joke. Steaming south, they pulled out of Donaldsville, La., after breakfast one morning, and Fate was told to get to the caliope — New Orleans was a mere 30 minutes away.
Fate didn’t know his distances, rushed to the upper deck and shivered in the chill breezes until 1 o’clock in the afternoon when New Orleans was finally sighted. Everybody but Fate knew that the distance between the two cities was 75 miles.
“I miss those days sometimes,” he sighed, “but 1907 is a long way from 1940, and I think I’ve added ten years to my life by giving up the worry of taking care of an orchestra. We sure had fun though.”
(Reprinted by special permission of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.)
Note: “Barrel House Rag” by Fate Marable, was his first and only composition from 1916. It was co-authored with the New Orleans music entrepreneur Clarence Williams. The MIDI sequence above is courtesy of Luigi Ranalli.
Note: See also Brian Goggin’s essay of Fate C. Marable accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.