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Adolphus 'Doc' Cheatham

Date Posted: 2011-09-30

By Paige VanVorst

(ed note: Our current release includes two CDs featuring trumpet legend Doc Cheatham. We haven't run anything about him before so we should remedy that immediately.)

Few jazz musicians enjoyed the career longevity of Doc Cheatham, who worked 75 years and died at the age of 91; he'd just finished a gig when he fell ill, and he was scheduled to work the following night- he was still at the top of his game.

Adolphus Cheatham was born in Nashville in 1905- he got his nickname from his days as a member of the band at Meharry Medical College- most of the guys in the band were studying to be doctors and called each other Doc; the name stuck, though his uncle was a prominent surgeon and referred to as Doc Cheatham. He started playing in a local kids band on the drums and he was transferred to the cornet when a new instructor came on board- he played the cornet and later switched to the saxophone.

He began sitting in with the pit band at the Bijou Theatre, Nashville's outlet on the TOBA vaudeville circuit. He heard most of the great names of the time, and vividly remembered when Bessie Smith came through town with Fletcher Henderson and Joe Smith in her band.
He left Nashville to tour with Marion Hardy's band in a vaudeville package, later switching to John Williams' Synco Jazzers, the band where Mary Lou Williams got her start.

Cheatham moved to Chicago in 1926 and worked with Al Wynn's band at the Dreamland, doubling on saxophone and cornet. Doc took over leadership of the band when Wynn left. He made his first recordings about this time, backing Ma Rainey on soprano sax. He was so horrified when he heard the records that he decided to concentrate on the cornet.

During this time, Louis Armstrong was the pre-eminent musician in Chicago; Cheatham became his good friend, and filled in for him a few times in Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra. He listened to all the other musicians in Chicago and gradually developed his own style.
He headed East about 1928- he worked a bit in New Jersey, played some jobs in Philadelphia with Wilbur DeParis, then worked a little around New York with Jelly Roll Morton before heading for Europe in June 1928 with Sam Wooding's Chocolate Kiddies.

He returned to the US early in 1930- he rejoined Marion Hardy's Alabamians and worked a while with McKinney's Cotton Pickers before joining Cab Calloway in 1933. Cheatham was Cab's lead trumpeter for eight years, one of the best music jobs during that time- Cab may have drawn most of the attention with his onstage antics, but he was a very successful attraction; he hired an outstanding band, paid them very well, and took good care of them. While other bands scuffled around in battered buses, Cab's band traveled in private railroad cars.

He was tired after eight years on the road and dropped out of music temporarily to work for the Post Office. His retirement lasted about two years- he eased back into music when Teddy Wilson organized a short-lived big band- Cheatham thought it was the greatest big band of all time, but ahead of its time.

He got busy when he was tapped to join Eddie Heywood's little band, which soared on the strength of their recording of Begin the Beguine. They became the toast of 52nd Street, fixtures at Café Society, where Cheatham regularly backed Billie Holiday.

During much of the 1940s Cheatham was in relatively poor health and not up to the rigors of lead playing- in Wilson's band he played special parts that doubled the lead an octave lower, which was within his capabilities at the time.

There followed a period touring with Latin bands, during which he regained most of his strength. This period included a disastrous tour of South America, with Perez Prado, who refused to pay his sidemen; Cheatham had to hire an attorney and seize the band's assets to get paid.

Cheatham worked all the time during the 1950s, principally with Wilbur DeParis band- he shared trumpet chores with Sidney DeParis and appears on several of their outstanding Atlantic LPs. He toured Africa with DeParis in 1957 and Europe in 1960. He also led a second DeParis band that worked in Boston while the main band held forth at Jimmy Ryan's.

He worked around New York for the next twenty years- he put in time with Dr. Albert Vollmer's excellent Harlem Jazz and Blues Band, and worked at Your Father's Moustache with Red Balaban. He was also called upon repeatedly when a lead trumpet was needed for the recreations of classic jazz sides mounted by George Wein's New York Jazz Repertory Company.

In 1965 he joined a quintet led by Benny Goodman and began a program under which he basically reinvented himself. He practiced endlessly, listened to other trumpeters, including Miles Davis and Clifford Brown as well as Louis Armstrong and Cootie Williams. He developed a delightful singing style and resurrected some numbers from his long ago past, such as Never Swat a Fly, a favorite from his McKinney's days that he featured often.

His playing remained strong and inventive- his playing had an unmistakable joy. He had a unique stance with his horn proudly pointed upward, and he became one of the busiest men in jazz- he began a weekly job at Sweet Basil in New York in that lasted from 1980 until his death. He also toured internationally, working most major jazz festivals, and he recorded for major labels, including both Verve and Columbia, pretty fast company for a man in his late eighties.

It all came to an end in 1997- he suffered a massive stroke shortly after finishing a gig at Blues Alley in Washington DC- he'd been touring in support of his new Verve CD with a group including Nicholas Payton and Butch Thompson. He died the next day with his beloved Nellie at his side. He left at least one musical heir, his grandson Theo Croker, who has already made a CD or two and he isn't much more than a teenager.

We're pleased to have two CDs featuring Doc in our new release - on GHB BCD-249 we have Doc with Sammy Price, a versatile pianist he toured and recorded with several times. On Jazzology we have JCD-384, featuring Doc and Art Hodes backing vocalist Carrie Smith. Doc was a unique musician and one of the most distinctive jazz trumpeters of recent jazz history.

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