Friday, August 6, 2010

Fate Marable and Riverboat Jazz

Fate Marable was arguably the most important of the early jazz pioneers. It was Fate Marable who introduced jazz to the Mississippi riverboat culture outside of New Orleans. In fact, Fate Marable's band, which played for over a decade on the Streckfus Steam line, became the training ground for such icons as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

By the early 20th century,  the feasibility of riverboats as a means of commerce had been destroyed by the railroad. However, riverboats would continue on the Mississippi in the form of excursion boating, tenuously keeping alive the romanticism of Huckleberry Finn's world.   Day trips. Moonlight cruises. Overnight cruises. Riverboats became a popular place for young people to meet and such excursions were often sponsored by groups such as the Elks, the Red Cross, churches and schools.

In 1917, Fate Marable was playing aboard the S.S. Sidney on the upper Mississippi with a band he personally put together featuring African-American musicians from his native Kentucky. Captain Streckfus gave Marable much leeway in regards to the music aboard the steamer, but insisted that in addition to jazz, Marable had to play other songs as well, such as traditional waltzes and other popular dance music. Marable obliged, but most likely lived for those moments when jazz flowed through his fingers and ignited his piano.

Stealing aboard the S.S. Sidney in the summer of 1917 with his new friend Billy Miles, Robert Bishop came face-to-face with the music that would soon take Chicago by storm:

Muffled conversation filled the air. The stomping of hundreds of feet kept beat to the fast-paced music coming from the large orchestra up on the second deck ballroom. It was loud aboard the Sidney and young people moved and weaved around posts, hung over the railings and chased each other up the stairs. Most held bottles in their hands. And they weren’t drinking Bevo, that was for sure.
     “Isn’t this great?” exclaimed Billy.
     “I don’t know what to say. How much----?”
     “Don’t worry about it. It’s my birthday and this is exactly what I wanted.”
     “At least let my buy you a drink,” offered Robert.
     Billy wrapped an arm around Robert’s shoulder. “Never can I turn down a drink, my man. Let me lead the way.”
    Billy guided Robert into a flow of people moving up the grand staircase to the second deck. The ballroom was huge and newly refurbished. Now advertised as the “Mirror Palace,” the highly polished wood of the dance floor stretched 180 feet down the length of the steamboat. American flags hung from the low beams and the electric lights were turned down, glowing gently from several chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. Even so, the shapes of hundreds of people fox-trotting to “Walkin’ the Dog” reflected on that floor as if it were water. The large windows were open and a nice Mississippi River breeze drifted through the crowd.
     Robert bought two cold Potosi lagers and handed one to Billy. “Happy birthday,” he said as they clanked bottles together, foam running down the sides. It had been a week since he last had a real beer and the lager tasted good. Granted, it wasn’t Edelweiss, but it was good enough.
     Billy grabbed Robert by the arm, leading him down the dance floor so that they could get an unobstructed view of the Kentucky Jazz Orchestra. A redheaded Negro with light skin and freckles pounded the keys of the piano while several other Negroes played along almost oblivious to the large crowd dancing in front of them.
     “That’s Fate Marable on the piano,” said Billy. “I first saw him about ten years ago on the J.S.  He played ragtime back then. He personally put together this band.”
     Robert had heard this song before. It was popular about a year ago. However, he had never heard it quite like this. The tempo was faster, to be sure. But there was something else. There was a certain intensity coming through the rhythm. The musicians all swayed with the music, eyes closed. Sweat glistened on their faces and foreheads. The large bass player tapped his foot loudly on the floor, each time lifting his entire foot off the ground. The clarinet carried most of the melody and the man playing it moved fluidly, his entire body oscillating gently with the tune, his instrument a mere appendage. They played harmoniously together, each man doing his own thing in his own way but never losing touch with what the others were doing. There was no sheet music to be found; no music stands. They were speaking to each other in a language only they knew.
     Robert was mesmerized and found himself unwittingly tapping his own foot along with the beat. And before he knew it, the song was over. Roaring applause erupted from the dance floor. Someone whistled loudly.
    The musicians all took out white handkerchiefs and briefly dabbed their brows. Fate Marable then counted to three and soon a standard waltz filled the room. There was an audible groan among the dancers, which brought a slight smile to the piano player’s face. And Robert knew instinctively that Fate Marable and his band were not born to play waltzes.  (Chapter 14, Lilac Wine)
Unfortunately, not much is left of Fate Marable and his contribution to early jazz.  He made only one recording, well after jazz had already exploded onto the national scene.  Nevertheless, there is something magical about listening to Fate Marable on "Frankie and Johnny," recorded in the summer of 1924.  In that brief melody, one gets a sense of what it must have been like sitting aboard a riverboat on a warm summer evening, the sounds of jazz echoing among the cliffs and bluffs of the upper Mississippi.

Fate Marable's Society Syncopators, "Frankie and Johnny" (1924):

No comments:

Post a Comment