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Celebrating the birthday of Doc Cheatham

(June 13, 1905 – June 2, 1997)

During a career spanning seven decades, trumpeter Doc Cheatham was involved in virtually every phase of jazz history. He started as an ensemble player and blossomed into an expressive soloist in small group settings. He was comfortable playing big, brassy music, but his sound could also be soft and delicate. His articulation and clarity became pillars of his style.

Adolphus Anthony “Doc” Cheatham was born on June 13, 1905, in Nashville, Tenn. Although Nashville was not known for jazz, the town did have the Bijou Theater, where Cheatham began playing with the pit band at an early age. It was there that he met and played with the great blues artists Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

In 1926, Cheatham met trumpeter Louis Armstrong, an encounter Cheatham would later describe as the best thing that ever happened to him. Armstrong and his wife Lil helped Cheatham get work, and eventually Armstrong asked Doc to fill in for him.

“I substituted for him two or three times,” Cheatham says. “It was hard to do, because he was such a great player. I knew I wasn’t capable, but I was young and I listened to what he was doing, and I learned what he was playing.”

After his experience with Armstrong, Cheatham became more dedicated than ever to playing the trumpet, absorbing all he could from fellow musicians. From the late ’20s to the ’40s, he played lead trumpet with Sam Wooding, the McKinney Cotton Pickers, Benny Carter and Cab Calloway. Cheatham also played in Calloway’s Orchestra, with its grueling schedule, for nine years. For health reasons, Cheatham left the band and took a few months off, but he eventually returned to music, joining Teddy Wilson’s big band and later the Eddie Heywood Jr. Sextet.

With the decline of big bands, Cheatham found a new challenge playing Latin music. He joined the bands of Marcelino Guerra, Perez Prado and later Machito’s band. By the mid-’60s, and at the age of 60, Cheatham landed a job with the Benny GoodmanQuintet and decided to use his past influences to refashion himself as a soloist and improviser.

“One of the prime motivations in improvised music for jazz musicians is to be able to tell a story when we play a solo,” trumpeter Jon Faddis says. “Doc is a master at that, because you can hear all of his background and influences.” In 1972, Cheatham added vocals to his performances.

For the rest of his career, Cheatham remained in demand on both the concert and festival circuits, and he maintained his peak musical form until his death at age 91. He was an eyewitness to 70 years of American musical history and a living testament to the diversity and vitality of jazz, blues, big band and Latin music. On June 2, 1997, Cheatham died while on tour, doing what he loved to do.

Bio by NPR