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On this date in 1905, Doc Cheatham, an African American musician, was born.
Anthony Adolphus Cheatham was born in Nashville, TN. He started drumming at age 15, switched to saxophone and cornet, and while still a teenager was playing in the pit band at Nashville's Bijou Theater, backing all the blues-singing Smiths--Bessie, Clara, and Mamie--as well as Ethel Waters. He moved to Chicago in the mid-1920s, washing dishes at a Loop restaurant while he waited for his union card. His first gig was at Dreamland, Al Capone's club on State Street, playing with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.
After Cheatham headed East in 1927, he worked with Wilbur De Paris and Chick Webb, toured Europe with Sam Wooding, returned to New York to join McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and in 1931 began an eight-year stint with Cab Callaway. After illness hospitalized him in 1939, he played lead trumpet in bands led by Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, and Eddie Heywood. When World War II broke out, he found a job as a postal employee to avoid the draft. He kept a studio for teaching and backed Billie Holiday on Commodore sessions. With the rise of rock and roll, Cheatham began playing with Latin bands including Perez Prado and Machito.
He toured Africa with De Pris and Herbie Mann, Europe with Sammy Price, and appeared on TV's "The Sound Of Jazz" in 1957. Cheatham fronted his own band in New York and backed Benny Goodman beginning in the late '60s as he came into his own as a gifted soloist. "You have to photograph the melody in your mind, you have to know it like a photograph," said Cheatham, explaining his approach to improvisation. "The chords come automatically because you have a base there in the melody that is the foundation of every chord." Cheatham's last recording project was with trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
An eagerly sought-after lead-trumpeter for the first three-quarters of his career, Doc Cheatham enjoyed a second career as a soloist at an age when most men are thinking about retirement. He died on June 2, 1997, in Washington, D.C., after an engagement the previous weekend at Blues Alley.
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