Obituary: Doc Cheatham

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The Independent Online
"If I'd known I was going to live so long, I'd have taken better care of myself." The jazz pianist Eubie Blake was speaking on his 100th birthday. There is a coterie of jazz musicians who have lived for nine decades and are still playing, the altoist Benny Carter (90 in August) and the tenor man Benny Waters (95) amongst them. Watch this space.

Jazz is such an all-embracing way of life that the greatest musicians don't stop playing until they stop breathing. For men like Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong retirement would have been unthinkable. We all knew that Doc Cheatham, who has died a fortnight short of his 92nd birthday, would have metaphorically had his trumpet to his lips when the time came. Indeed he came happily off the stand at the Blues Alley club in Georgetown at the end of his last set on Saturday night. He suffered a stroke on Sunday and died in his sleep with his wife by his bed. Like Carter and Waters, it seemed that he had been an old man all his life.

Cheatham was a late starter if ever there was one. He played his part in trumpet sections through the great days of the big bands, but he was 60 before he flowered as a soloist. Such anti-precocity is otherwise unheard of.

His mother was a teacher and his father, a barber, was descended from Cherokee and Choctaw Indians who had settled in Cheatham County, Tennessee. The story is that his family gave him his nickname before he was seven and from then on it was the only name he ever answered to. But it is more likely that the name came later when he played with an amateur band at the Meharry Medical College.

His professional career began at 15 when he left the local chapel's kids' band to play with a travelling carnival and the tattooed trumpet on his arm was a reminder of those days. When he was at his most impressionable age he moved to Chicago. King Oliver was the man to copy and before anyone outside of New Orleans had even heard of Louis Armstrong, Cheatham had already become a jazz trumpeter using Oliver's style.

He played with the two most majestic of blues singers, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. As if that were not accolade enough he also worked for Jelly Roll Morton and during the Chicago time Armstrong used Cheatham as his substitute when he couldn't make a job.

He became a member of the legendary Sam Wooding's showband and toured Europe with it in 1929-31. Along with others in the cast, he worked with a mixture of comedy routines and jazz performances which consolidated the group's enormous popularity outside the United States (at home Wooding's bands flopped consistently).

When he returned home Cheatham had a brief and unsuccessful marriage and joined McKinney's Cotton Pickers for a couple of years until he was invited to move to the more sophisticated confines of Cab Calloway's orchestra in 1933. He married a dancer from the Cotton Club who was from the same family as the avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman. She nagged him continually throughout their seven-year marriage to get a job away from music, "I can't stand that. I'd rather be alone." She finally went home to Texas and married someone else.

When Dizzy Gillespie took the chair beside him in 1939, Cheatham had been with the Calloway trumpet section long enough to be already a veteran, Gillespie had been brought to the band by another trumpeter, Mario Bauza, a Cuban who interested both Cheatham and Gillespie in his native music, and Bauza's friendship was to affect the music of both the other men in later years.

Ill-health forced Cheatham to leave Calloway. "They never did figure out what was wrong with me and I didn't regain my full strength until the Sixties. It took that long, and at one point a doctor told me, 'Doc, maybe you better just lay down the rest of your life.' When I got out of the hospital I went to Europe for a few months to rest. Then I joined Teddy Wilson's big band and after that Benny Carter's, but I wasn't up to par. I quit playing and took a job in the post office. In 1943 I tried it again in Eddie Heywood's little group - which wasn't too hard, because Eddie wrote everything out and took long piano solos."

Heywood was the darling of New York's cafe society. When Cheatham joined the sextet he did take solos and the recordings of the time reveal him as a thoughtful player who was not an innovator. His style had elements of other trumpeters - Armstrong, Joe Smith, Buck Clayton and Joe Thomas amongst them. With Heywood he worked and recorded with Billie Holiday.

"Taking a solo is like an electric shock. First, I have no idea what I will play, but then something in my brain leads me to build very rapidly, and I start thinking real fast from note to note. I don't worry about chords, because I can hear the harmonic structure in the back of my mind. I've been through all that so many years it's second nature to me."

During the next 20 years Cheatham, fired by the earlier friendship with Bauza, worked mostly with top Latin bands led by Machito, Tito Puente, Perez Prado and others. He also made jazz tours with a sophisticated revivalist band led by the de Paris Brothers, Wilbur and Sidney. He had first worked with Wilbur in Philadelphia in 1927 and had always admired Sidney's trumpet playing. He toured in Africa and Europe with them and retraced those steps with the pianist Sammy Price (Europe, 1958) and the flautist Herbie Mann (Africa, 1960).

He led his own band in New York for five years and then in 1966, at the age of 60, joined Benny Goodman's Quintet. Here he was exposed as a soloist as never before. While Goodman was satisfied, Cheatham wasn't and began working on his style with a new intensity. He gave up the Latin playing and played in Dixieland bands in New York. His New York Quartet evolved from this and from the early Seventies onwards he worked as a featured solo player. He began playing Sunday lunchtime sessions at Sweet Basil in New York, and the job lasted for 17 years.

Revered as a part of history, he toured the world and was never short of work again. His gentle playing and his dulcet voice were in demand everywhere and he had recently enjoyed a musical partnership with Nicholas Peyton, a trumpeter who at 23 was almost 70 years his junior. Earlier this year an album they made together for the Verve label entered the Top 20 Jazz Album Chart (I have to confess I didn't know that there was such a thing).

Peyton is a native of New Orleans and Cheatham had recently taken to spending much of his time in the city, working and recording with local musicians. "I can smell beautiful things in the air in New Orleans," he said.

"I'm almost the last of the line, I've talked to kids who come to hear us who don't even know who Louis Armstrong is. But they listen. 'How do you do that?' they'll ask. 'That's beautiful,' they'll say. When I'm gone, it'll be just about over, my kind of playing. It will be as if it hadn't existed at all, as if all of us hadn't worked so long and hard."

Doc Cheatham's final European visit was last month when he toured with Clark Terry, Snooky Young, Harry Edison and Joe Wilder. The five made up the Trumpet Legacy. His autobiography I Guess I'll Get the Papers and Go Home, written in collaboration with Alyn Shipton, was published in 1995.

Adolphus Anthony "Doc" Cheatham, trumpeter: born Nashville, Tennessee 13 June 1905; three times married (one son, one daughter); died Washington DC 2 June 1997.

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