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Lead Man Turned Eminent SoloistCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1997
Cheatham, DocThe death of Adolphus Anthony Cheatham, familiarly known as Doc Cheatham, ended a remarkable career, and one which he managed to sustain for over 70 years as an active professional musician. Although increasingly frail for the physical demands of the trumpet, he continued to play with great spirit and feeling in his music.
Cheatham's very longevity contributed to his eventual recognition as an important soloist in a style which derived from Louis Armstrong, but was peppered with his own distinctive leanings, acquired over a widely varied career. In his later years, he began to receive the recognition as a soloist which had eluded him for much of his playing life, and was courted by festivals and concert promotors at an age when most musicians have long since retired.
He received the belated attentions of the major record companies as well, recording an album for Columbia Records at the age of 87 in 1992, and linking up with the young New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Peyton for a joint release on Verve Records in 1996.
Cheatham did not always enjoy that level of individual attention. He grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was known as "Doc" from a very early age. His father was a businessman, his mother a school teacher, but their notion that Adolphus might follow his elder brother -- a dentist -- into the medical profession had to be set aside when he chose music instead. He played both cornet and saxophone as a teenager, and by 1923 was performing in the local vaudeville theatre, where his jobs included backing the legendary blues singer, Bessie Smith.
He moved to Chicago in 1926, where he still played saxophone for a short time, including a record date with another famous blues singer of the era, Ma Rainey. He played with George Wynn and led his own group, but the most momentous development of his Chicago period lay in meeting -- and often standing in for -- Louis Armstrong.
Under the influence of Armstrong and Freddie Keppard, Cheatham laid aside saxophone and concentrated on trumpet, developing over the next decade as one of the best lead trumpeters on the American band scene. Top lead trumpeters were a crucial cog in the workings of the big bands, and were in great demand in the 1930s. Cheatham worked with Wilbur de Paris in Philadelphia in 1927-8, and travelled to Europe with Sam Wooding in the latter year, where he shared solo duties with his friend and fellow trumpeter, Tommy Ladnier.
In the ensuing decade, he played as a lead trumpeter in some of the best known big bands of the era, including the seminal McKinney's Cotton Pickers (1931-2), and bands led by Chick Webb and, most famously, Cab Calloway (1933-9). He suffered a breakdown in 1939 and had to take some time away from playing to recuperate, but returned to performing with a number of bands in the war years, including those led by Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Teddy Hill and Eddie Heywood.
The rise of bebop after the war blunted the traditionally-oriented trumpeter's interest for a time, and he took a job with the post office in 1945, while also running his teaching studio in New York. When he returned to performing, it was in the unexpected setting of Latin-American bands, working with band-leaders like Machito and Ricardo Rey in a music which had become highly fashionable at that time.
He continued to play in that style throughout the 1950s and 1960s, while simultaneously working in a more central jazz context with the likes of Wilbur De Paris, Sammy Price, and Herbie Mann, as well as leading his own band in the early 60s.
A crucial development in the course of his career arrived as he passed the age of 60, when he was invited to join the Benny Goodman Band in 1966. At that time, Goodman ran a quintet rather than a big band, a context in which Cheatham's famed abilities as a lead trumpet were of little moment. The trumpeter faced a new challenge in a more exposed soloist's role alongside Goodman's clarinet, and he quickly acquired a taste for it.
From the end of that decade, he worked largely as a freelance, and added further substance to his growing reputation as a soloist rather than simply a lead trumpeter. His technique had been finely honed by the demands of the lead job, but he was also an expressive and imaginative improviser, and that aspect of his work was given greater prominence in his final decades, backed up by a great deal of hard work in the practice room re-adjusting a lifetime's musical approach.
He was always open to learning new tricks from players outside of his own immediate musical area (bop trumpeter Clifford Brown was an acknowledged favourite), and added singing to his list of accomplishments in that period as well. He continued to tour and record with a stamina and resilience which might be the envy of players half his age, sometimes leading his own bands, but often travelling simply as a soloist, linking up with other itinerant jazz stars at festivals and concerts around the world.
The veteran trumpeter played his final gig at the Blues Alley club in Washington two days before his death, but suffered a stroke the following day, and died in hospital.