Fate Marable

The Johnny Appleseed of Jazz and Father of the Pittsburgh School of Jazz Piano

Fate Marable was a pianist and bandleader who hired New Orleans Jazz musicians leading them on river boat tours up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  He introduced jazz to the people of the river towns spreading its popularity.  His band was a training school for many jazz musicians.  Along the way he hired musicians from the river towns training a generation of jazz musicians.  Pittsburgh was his northern most stop.  Enjoying dances on riverboat cruises for a regular part of summer life in Pittsburgh  Marable’s performances in Pittsburgh were in 1907.  He came back yearly through the 1920s jazz era and the swing era of the 30s and 40s.  In the off season when the river boats shut down Marable played piano at the Leader House (later the Crawford Grille), The Baily Hotel and other clubs on Wylie Avenue.  The 1940 WPA survey “The Negro in Pittsburgh” credits Marable as the founding father of Pittsburgh’s school of jazz piano.  

Born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1890 Fate Marable learned piano from his mother.  At age 17, he began playing piano on the steam boats that cruised the Mississippi.  He began playing ragtime piano in 1907 on the steamboat J.S. No. 1 that worked out of Rock Island, Illinois.  His first band, comprised of a violinist, trumpet, and drum and Fate on piano, performed on the J.S. until 1910 when the boat burned.  After the loss of the J.S. steamboat Marable became the band leader on the paddle wheeler Sidney owned by the Streckfus Line.  During the summer months Marable’s band entertained people along the rivers on dance excursions. 

On his many trips through New Orleans Marable fell in love with the wild new music called Jazz.  In an interview Fate said “We were going in and out of New Orleans all the time and I began to notice the type of music they were playing there. It just got under my skin."  In 1919 he organized an all African American Jazz band with musicians recruited from New Orleans.  He hired the 18 year old Louis Armstrong who wowed audiences with his improvisations.  Fate Marable’s band became a training ground for early jazz musicians including Johnny Dodds, Zutty Singleton, King Oliver, Johnny St. Cyr, Tommy Ladnier, Red Allen and Pops Foster.  He taught them to read music and to play with discipline.  In 1920 and 1921 Marable’s band was considered the best dance band in country.  Marable's band took jazz to every town along the river.  Along the way he trained local musicians who carried jazz inland.  He led bands on the boats until the mid 1940s.

 The 1940 WPA survey "The Negro in Pittsburgh" states that Marable greatly influenced the development of Jazz in Pittsburgh.  He settled his family in Pittsburgh while he steamed the rivers with his band.  In the off season Marable spent time in Paducah, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.  He performed at the Wyle Avenue clubs in Pittsburgh’s Hills district.  Marble first arrived in Pittsburgh in 1907 playing ragtime on the J.S. streamer. Beginning with Marable's influence Pittsburgh produced the legendary jazz pianists Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn,  Erroll Garner,  Ahmad Jamal, Horace Parlan, and Shirley Scott. According the jazz historian Dr. Nelson Harrision, Marable's son Fate Jr., who lives in Pittsburgh, remembers seeing Erroll Garner jamming with his father's bands on the riverboats. 

In the mid-1940's Marable left the rivers and settled in St. Louis, where he played in clubs. The only recording the Fate ever made was in 1924.  Fate Marable's Society Syncopators recorded the songs "Frankie and Johhny" and  'Pianoflage"