Family Stories

Wizard of the Ivories

Fate Marable, December 2, 1890 – January 16, 1947.  Musician and director from 1906 to 1940 on the Streckfus Steamboats plying the Mississippi River during the era of Dixieland Jazz.  Oak Grove Cemetery, Paducah, McCracken County, Kentucky.

One of the most interesting gravestones in Oak Wood Cemetery in Paducah, is that of Fate Marable.  My attention was immediately drawn because the piano and music notes rolling out from it called my name.  Although I play rarely now, my piano was a very important part of my life from about twelve till I married.  Almost as important as genealogy!  And to find a famous jazz pianist buried in this Paducah cemetery was fascinating.

Fate Clifford Marable was born in Paducah December 2, 1890, the son of James and Elizabeth Wharton Marable.  He was the oldest of five children; his sisters were Mable and Neona – brothers were James, Jr., and Harold.  Elizabeth Marable was a piano teacher and specifically told her son not to touch the instrument.  He didn’t while she was at home but did while she was away.  After taking notice of her son’s talent she gave him piano lessons, and he learned to read music.  This was something he incorporated into his band – most of them played by ear.  Learning to read music helped them become better musicians and helped their careers later in life.  Zutty Singleton, his drummer at one time, would tell new hires, ‘Well, you’re going to the conservatory.’

At the age of 17 Fate began playing on the steamboats that traveled up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  He started as the calliope player.  It was a difficult job because of the pressure from the steam, so he wore gloves to protect his hands from the hot keys, stuffed his ears with cotton due to the volume of sound, and wore raingear to keep from getting wet from the spewed steam and water.  Playing calliope in that day was difficult because the steam produced so much pressure the keys were hard to hold down, and pitch varied with steam pressure.  Fate must have been very good at his job.

He soon became the pianist and bandleader for a paddle wheeler on the Streckfus Line, running from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minnesota.

In the 1910 city directory for Paducah, the Marable family, except James, Sr. (had he passed away?), were listed as living at 512 S 8th Street – even younger children were listed:  Fate C., musician; Harold, student; James C., helper South Side Pressing Club; Lizzie L., music teacher; Mabel, student; Neona, student.

In 1912 Fate is boarding at 1005 N 7th Street – and Rose is living with him.  Is this his wife?  I could find no other mention of her.

In 1918 Fate’s band was composed of himself at the piano; Baby Dodds, drums; George (Pops) Foster, bass; David Jones, mellophone; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo guitar; Joe Howard, cornet; William Ridgely, trombone; Boyd Atkins, swing violin; and an 18-year-old cornet player named Louis Armstrong.  The St. Louis Blues always received deafening applause.  In 1920 and 1921, Fate Marable’s band was considered one of the best dance bands in the United States.  Can you imagine the beat and the sound!  My toes tap at that now silent music.

Music and his piano were Marable’s life.  In 1940 a severely infected finger forced him off showboats and away from the piano, but by the mid 40’s he was back at the keyboard at the Club Windsor and the Victoria Club in St. Louis.  He continued as a musician until his death on January 16, 1947.  He deserved his title ‘Wizard of the Ivories.’

The Paducah Sun Democrat, McCracken County, Kentucky

Sunday, January 19, 1947

Fate Marable, Noted Negro Pianist, To Be Buried Here

St. Louis, Jan. 18 – Fate Marable, Negro pianist and one of the jazz band leaders under whom trumpet player Louis Armstrong started, died Friday night of pneumonia.

Marable, 56, led orchestras on excursion boats on the Mississippi River between 1918 and 1940.  In recent years he was a pianist in a St. Louis supper club.  The body will be taken to Paducah, Kentucky, for burial.

Marable started his musical career here [Paducah] when he was 16 years of age and had appeared here at various celebrations in the last several years.

The body will be taken to Mundy funeral home at 11 a.m. Sunday.  Funeral arrangements are incomplete pending arrival of relatives.

Survivors include the widow, three sisters and a brother.

 

In another obituary from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch it said Marable was survived by two sons and a daughter.

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