Cheatham, Doc 1905—1997
Doc Cheatham 1905—1997
One of the very last survivors of the early days of jazz, trumpeter Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham attracted attention from the historically-inclined right up to his death in 1997 at the age of 91. His career strikingly recapitulated much of the history of jazz as a whole: he came of age hearing and playing with the New Orleans masters of the music’s classic period; he participated in the big band movement that defined jazz in the 1930s; after the Second World War he affiliated himself with popular Latin dance orchestras on one hand and appeared with select, connoisseur-oriented small-group jazz combos on the other. He was a keen observer and good talker, and the jazz world learned much from his remembrances.
But Cheatham was more than just a piece of living history: he was one of a very small group of artists in history whose talents have truly bloomed most fully in old age. Without a trace of condescension or allowances for advanced years, critics pronounced his later recordings and performances his best, and it was toward the end of his life that he allowed himself more often to step into the spotlight as a soloist. Cheatham himself shared the critics’ assessment, telling Down Beat magazine in 1995, “I’m better now because I can remember. I know the tune from top to bottom.” Building his technique with practice over much of his later life, Cheatham died of a stroke shortly after completing a weekend run of performances.
Doc Cheatham was born in Nashville on June 13, 1905. His father was a possibly part Cherokee or Choctaw barber from Tennessee’s Cheatham County, his mother a school teacher and lab assistant. An aunt taught opera singing at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Cheatham took up the cornet and soon after the trumpet as a teenager, taking lessons from two itinerant circus trumpeter brothers named Professor N. C. Davis and Professor C. M. Davis. He landed a job in the pit orchestra at Nashville’s Bijou theatre, which played host to great performers of the black touring circuit of the 1920s such as Bessie Smith and Clara Smith. He also played in a small band based at Nashville’s historically black Meharry Medical College, acquiring the nickname “Doc” as a result.
At a Glance…
Born Adolphus Anthony Cheatham in Nashville, TN, on June 13, 1905; son of a barber and a schoolteacher; married twice. Died June 2, 1997.
Career: Long-lived/venerated Jazz trumpeter. Moved to Chicago, 1925; came into contact with founders of jazz trumpet style. Moved to East Coast, 1927; joined Cab Calloway big band, 1932; backed vocalist Bill ie Holiday as member of Eddie Heywood sextet, mid-1940s and again on 1957 television broadcast; successful career in Latin dance music, 1950s and 1960s; appearances with Benny Goodman, 1966. Vigorous late-life solo career in small-group settings, 1960s–1990s.
Honors: Nominated for a Grammy Award, along with Nicolas Payton, 1998.
His parents hoped that he would indeed become a doctor, but instead Cheatham headed for Chicago, a city that was just coming into its own as a jazz mecca when he arrived in 1925. Rubbing elbows with already-legendary trumpeters like Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard, and “King” Oliver, he took another crucial step forward musically when he learned to read musical notation. “I was in [pianist] Charlie Johnson’s band only one night,” he recalled in a Down Beat interview. I was fired thatsame night…. I couldn’t read the show music. So that’s when I got busy down there. I found a teacher, Viola something.” In 1927 Cheatham made his first recording (he may have recorded earlier with blues diva “Ma” Rainey); his last was released on the Verve label a month before his death.
Cheatham moved to the East Coast in 1927 and did stints with several celebrated bands, including McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Stable employment came during an eight-year tenure with bandleader Cab Calloway, from 1932 to 1940. Cheatham had been recommended by jazz musician Benny Carter. Calloway’s band, often performing at New York’s renowned Cotton Club, was one of the most successful of the era. “I got a hundred dollars a week every Friday night like clockwork, and once I got paid twice and was told to keep it,” Cheatham told jazz critic Whitney Balliett.
The rigors of life on the road took a toll on Cheatham’s health, and in 1939 he was hospitalized for nine weeks suffering from anemia and exhaustion. This breakdown lead to a hiatus and turning point in Cheatham’s career. During World War II he essentially put his performing career on hold, opening a teaching studio in New York and taking a job with the U.S. post office. Up until this point Cheatham had been known as a solid professional player, often a section leader in a large band but rarely a soloist. From the mid-1940s on, Cheatham would emerge as a soloist more and more often. At an age when most jazz careers start to go into decline, Cheatham’s was really just beginning.
Joining a band led by Eddie Heywood Jr. Cheatham backed vocalist Billie Holiday in performances at the Cafe Society club, and took solos that showed some of the directions in which he would later develop. New popular musical forms also proved suited to his talents; Cheatham found ready employment after the war when trumpet-oriented Latin dance bands began to gain popularity. For a time, Cheatham played in the orchestra of the incredible Cuban-born bandleader Perez Prado. He continued making jazz appearances as well, and backed Holiday again on a widely viewed 1957 CBS television broadcast called “The Sound of Jazz.”
Cheatham’s big break came at the age of 60, early in 1966, when he was asked by clarinetist Benny Goodman to join his quintet for a series of performances at the Rainbow Room club. “I was honored to play on the same bandstand as him, whether I played good or not,” Cheatham told Down Beat. Later that year Cheatham toured Europe with a Goodman ensemble. The performances ushered in a astonishing period of late-life creativity.
Cheatham embarked on a seven-year regimen of practice and study, aiming to transform himself into a great soloist. Even in 1993 he told Time that “I study my jazz all the time, trying to improve myself.” From the late 1970s onward, he was a fixture of New York’s live jazz scene, and recording opportunities often flowed his way. He joined 23-year-old Wynton Marsalis protégé Nicholas Payton for a series of duets on his final recording, 1997’s Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton. “I just hope Doc doesn’t slaughter me too badly,” Payton told Fortune magazine.
“Taking a solo is like an electric shock,” Cheatham told Balliett. “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.” In critic Balliett’s words, “Cheatham’s tone is complete and jubilant.… Each note is an announcement. But he is also a legato player, whose rests allow beats to slip by, and though he is invariably on time at the end of each solo, he is cool about how he has done it.” A lyrical player, Cheatham was influenced by legends like Armstrong, but created a style uniquely his own. This courtly, restrained musician lived nearly the entire history of jazz, and ended up being accorded his own chapter in that history.
At the Bern Jazz Festival, Sackville (import).
Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton, Verve, 1997.
Doc Cheatham & Sammy Price, Sackville (import).
Hey Doc, Black and Blue (import).
Swinging Down in New Orleans, Jazzology.
The Eighty-Seven Years of Doc Cheatham, Columbia, 1993.
Dance, Stanley, The World of Swing, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.
Case, Brian, and Stan Britt, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, Salamander/Crown, 1978.
Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice-Hall, 1987.
Balliett, Whitney, American Musicians II, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Down Beat, June 1995; August 1997.
Fortune, July 7, 1997.
New Yorker, June 5, 1995.
People, June 16, 1997.
Time, September 27, 1993; June 2, 1997; June 16, 1997.
—James M. Manheim
"Cheatham, Doc 1905—1997." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cheatham-doc-1905-1997
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