Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Final Bow

By Michael McCall

Trumpeter Doc Cheatham customarily ended performances with a melancholy reading of "I Guess I'll Get the Papers and Go Home"; it was a sweet, sad offering from a sweet, upbeat man. On May 31, the 91-year-old Nashville native played a sold-out nightclub performance in Washington, D.C. As a standing ovation lingered, he walked off the bandstand for the last time, smiling and waving to the crowd. The next morning, while preparing to return to his home in New York City, he suffered a stroke. He died June 2 in a Washington hospital.

Adolphus Anthony "Doc" Cheatham was born here on June 13, 1905, and his life contained one of the richest histories of any American musician. He performed alongside Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman, among others. Late in life he gained a name for himself as a leader of small jazz combos, performing largely in New York and in Europe.

The New York Times once crowned Cheatham "a national treasure," but Music City has rarely mentioned his name when celebrating its musical contributions to the world. This is partly due to the trumpeter's own legendary humility, but it's also due to Nashville's inherent focus on country music and the Grand Ole Opry--and, in more recent years, to its focus on any aging rocker who decides to reside here.

A man of mixed descent, Cheatham was labeled "black" by the U.S. census, a glaring example America's ignorance in matters of race. Cheatham's forebears included African-American slaves and Native Americans; his maternal grandparents were full-blooded Cherokee and descendants of the original settlers of Cheatham County; his father's father was Choctaw. His mother was a schoolteacher and medical lab technician, and his father was a barber who eventually owned the downtown Nashville building in which his popular shop was located. The Cheathams dreamed that their bright, well-adjusted son would study medicine at Meharry College. They nicknamed him "Doc" when he was 5 years old, and it stuck for a lifetime. Despite their misgivings about a career in music, they paid for trumpet and music theory lessons by Fisk professor N.C. Davis.

Early on, Cheatham got a job playing in the pit band of Nashville's Bijou Theater, where he backed Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Mamie Smith, and other famous performers. In 1926, he moved to Chicago, where he performed with Ma Rainey. In 1930, in New York, he joined the acclaimed McKinney's Cotton Pickers, where he sat in a trumpet section that included Rex Stewart and Joe Smith. A year later he was recruited by Cab Calloway and spent the next eight years backing the flamboyant showman at the Cotton Club in Harlem.

In the early '40s, Cheatham attained the highest of big-band positions, taking the first-trumpet chair in groups led by Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Wilson, and Benny Carter. (He can also be heard on many of Billie Holiday's recordings from that era for the Commodore label.) By marriage, he became a relative of Ornette Coleman, who, as a teen, stayed with Cheatham during a visit to New York in the mid-1940s. Cheatham's friend, saxophonist Teddy McRae (who backed Ella Fitzgerald), helped a young Coleman pick out his first tenor sax that summer.

In the 1950s, Cheatham found success as a hot trumpeter in New York Latin bands led by such legendary figures as Machito, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente. In the '60s, he spent several years in Benny Goodman's small jazz combos. Despite his status as a musician, Cheatham didn't step out as a leader until the 1970s. He tackled the role with characteristic dedication: Well past retirement age, he took a couple of years off to study everyone from his old friend Louis Armstrong to Clifford Brown to Miles Davis before assembling his own quintet. Although he recorded sparingly, his later years were probably his most celebrated. Young jazz players regularly filled his weekly sets at New York's esteemed Sweet Basil club, a gig he held for 17 years.

Fans of warm, elegant swing will want to seek out nearly any album by Cheatham: The Fabulous Doc Cheatham on Parkwood Records and The Eighty Seven Years of Doc Cheatham on Columbia are particularly recommended. His best album may have been his last: Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton, released earlier this year, paired the 91-year-old music vet with a 23-year-old trumpeter from New Orleans.

Cheatham, a consummate gentleman, rarely criticized or lashed out at people, but he occasionally bemoaned the fact that young trumpet players tend to pursue the hard edges of bebop or the sugary strains of pop rather than developing the spare, tasteful purity of classic New Orleans swing. That Cheatham ended his career with an album featuring Payton, a young New Orleans player who idolizes Armstrong, gives a sense of completion to his life's work. The record is a fitting tribute to a man whose horn spoke of the easy yet determined grace with which he lived his life.

Doc Cheatham was probably the last remaining celebrated musician who saw King Oliver play in person, and he was perhaps the last who played alongside a young Louis Armstrong. Cheatham's greatest legacy is that he carried the art of both these musical pioneers into the end of the 20th century. After a lifetime of wonderful music, Cheatham has picked up his papers and, for the last time, gone home. With him goes the last breath of a great era of American music.

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