When considering western Kentucky’s musical heritage, many different genres come to mind: the roustabout folksongs of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the rockabilly stylings of Rockin’ Ray Smith, contemporary Christian with singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman, and the current burgeoning of Americana and Rock musicians.
Jazz is not one of those genres that leaps to the forefront when thinking about Paducah’s legacy, but a look through most histories on jazz will mention one native Paducahan who was instrumental in the spread of jazz up and down the rivers. A pianist and band leader on riverboats for over 40 years, Fate Marable is not only one of our own, but truly one of jazz music’s pioneers and a champion for African-American musicians
Fate was born in Paducah in 1890 to James and Lizzie Marable. Though a piano teacher, his mother at first forbid Fate to touch the instrument. Thankfully, he didn’t obey her and by his early teens became prodigious on the instrument, as well as a skilled reader of music. The Paducah papers from the early 1900’s mention many of Fate’s local performances, particularly in the schools. But at age 17, Fate’s encounter with a Streckfus excursion boat at Paducah’s riverfront would change the course of his life, and perhaps the course of popular music.
The boat, called the J.S. after owner John Strekfus, was one of the first steamboats in the country built solely for the purpose of excursion cruising. To that point in time, steamships were used primarily for trade and overnight passage. But Streckfus Steamers changed that by innovating long-term voyages on their excursion boats (essentially floating hotels) that took passengers on sight-seeing trips up and down America’s inland rivers. Like any cruise today, onboard entertainment was a big attraction and the boats hired many musicians.
Fate Marable’s fortuitous run-in with the J.S. Steamer landed him a job as pianist and calliope player. Given the racial prejudices of the day, this in and of itself was a major accomplishment for a relatively unknown, young, African American man. Yet, Marable’s charisma and ability were so great that he was soon given charge over his own orchestras, often made up of all white musicians. Soon, Marable’s name and word of his talent became familiar in every major port city between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
When in New Orleans, Marable continued to hone his skill and knowledge in the ever-growing jazz scene by playing in clubs and studying music at Straight University. Whenever he returned to playing on the Streckfus Steamers, he took the jazz sound with him, helping spread the genre to ports across the country.
Ultimately, Marable became the primary bandleader for the boats on the Streckfus Line with the freedom to choose the musicians in his orchestras, a job which included Marable’s organization of the first all African-American orchestra in 1917. It is said that Marable was an extremely demanding and strict bandleader who possessed an unusual ability to uncover great talent. Many musicians who would go on to jazz fame got their start on the steamships under Marable’s tutelage. His protégés include Red Allen, Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Pops Foster, Jimmy Blanton, and none other than Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s first musical experiences outside of New Orleans occurred on Streckfus Steamers as part of Marable’s orchestra. In fact, at Marable’s insistence, Armstrong took a train from St. Louis to Paducah in order to join the African American’s Musicians Union, which had not been an option in New Orleans. In the picture above, Fate sits front and center at the piano and Louis Armstrong sits to his left.
It is hard to quantify Marable’s impact both on the world of jazz and on the furtherance and recognition of African American musicians. But as an incredibly talented, prominent, visible, African American in the early 1900’s, his influence as a pioneer can’t be underestimated. He died on January 16, 1947 and is buried at back home in Paducah at Oak Grove Cemetery.
As always, if you’d like to know more about Fate Marable, come see us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. You also might be interested in a book called “Jazz on the River,” by William Howland Kenney which dedicates an entire chapter to the contributions of Marable. And if you like this post, make sure you also “like” our Facebook page so you have access to even more articles.