Jimmy Cheatham

Sweet Baby Blues trombonist
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James R. Cheatham, trombonist and bandleader: born Birmingham, Alabama 18 June 1924; married 1959 Jeanne Evans (one son, one daughter); died San Diego, California 12 January 2007.

The original conception of jazz was that it was an improvised music - the musicians made it up as they went along. The trombonist Jimmy Cheatham hewed pretty close to this idea. The arrangements that he wrote for the band he led with his wife were simple and not taxing for either the musicians or their audience. And the legendary weekly jam sessions that the couple led in San Diego from 1978 to 1984 drew musicians from as far away as Los Angeles.

Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham and the Sweet Baby Blues Band that they led for over 20 years couldn't fail. Their happy blues were uplifted by powerful solos from the handful of outstanding musicians who graced their albums. One of these was the trumpet player Snooky Young, a fine soloist who had been in the Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie bands in the glory days. Miles Davis and Count Basie were among the band's fans and Basie particularly admired Jeannie's accomplished piano playing. "Stay away from that piano or I'll break your fingers," Basie told her.

Jeannie Cheatham sings the blues with remarkable energy and in another era would have been regarded as one of the greats. Jimmy backed her with simple riff playing and the nature of his arrangements made them ideal for guest musicians such as Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Frank Wess and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis to join in.

During his army service, from 1942 to 1946, Jimmy Cheatham played in a military band that included Lester Young and the drummers Chico Hamilton and Jo Jones. After his discharge he enrolled at the New York Conservatory of Music, continuing his studies at the Westlake College of Music in Hollywood for three years. During that time he also studied with the gifted arranger Russell Garcia and worked in bands led by Gerald Wilson and Benny Carter.

He returned to Buffalo, where he had been brought up, touring from there with the blues-shouting saxophone player Bull Moose Jackson. It was in Buffalo that he met Jean Evans in 1956. He had just returned from work in California and she had been touring when the local musicians' union chief called them separately to replace two musicians who couldn't make a job at the local Elks Ballroom. They married in 1959.

At the beginning of the Sixties the couple moved to New York, where Jimmy played with the drummer Chico Hamilton's band for the next 10 years and also with Ornette Coleman, touring with big bands led by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Lionel Hampton and Frank Foster. In September 1971 and in May 1973 he deputised in the Duke Ellington band's trombone section.

He and Jeannie were visiting professors from 1972 to 1977 at the University of Wisconsin; there they organised the first series of their weekly jam sessions, a routine they carried on after they moved to San Diego In 1979 Jimmy was appointed head of the African American and jazz performance programme at the University of California in San Diego.

It was in 1983 that the couple formed the Sweet Baby Blues Band. In the mid-Eighties the couple signed for Concord Records and a series of highly successful albums ensued.

Steve Voce

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