The Philadelphia Inquirer City & Region

Tuesday, June 3, 1997

Trumpeter `Doc' Cheatham, 91

By Kevin L. Carter
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Adolphus ``Doc'' Cheatham, 91, a trumpeter who was part of every era of jazz, who played with or knew most of the music's greats, who performed, literally, until his last day, died early yesterday at a Washington hospital.

The Nashville-born musician, whose career spanned more than 70 years, died in his sleep at Georgetown University Hospital. He had suffered a stroke in his hotel room Sunday afternoon, several hours after playing his last concert, a full set with a group that included his latest collaborator, Nicholas Payton, at Washington's Blues Alley.

After the stroke, Mr. Cheatham was taken to the hospital, where he died with his wife by his side.

The legendary trumpeter and singer, who would have turned 92 on June 13, was a one-man history of jazz, a shy, congenial man who linked many jazz genres through his playing.

During his career, he recorded or performed with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and Jelly Roll Morton to Benny Goodman, Machito, Perez Prado and Roy Hargrove.

Mr. Cheatham and Payton, a 23-year-old New Orleans trumpeter, had recently released an album, Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton, on Verve Records. The pair were touring to promote it.

Mr. Cheatham and Payton's disc is a loping, unhurried effort on which both men demonstrate a strong affinity an earlier era: the melody and improvisational style of Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz. Mr. Cheatham's playing, and his scatting and singing, done in a sweet, grandfatherly tenor, sometimes falters, but sounds fresh nonetheless. Throughout, Payton's respect and affection for the older musician is evident.

The trumpeters had been scheduled to play in late May at Broad Street's Zanzibar Blue, but Mr. Cheatham, who had been reducing his workload over the past few months, did not play the date.

Buzzy Wilson, who books Zanzibar Blue, believes that one of Mr. Cheatam's major legacies was that, even in his later years, he continued to perform at a high level.

``The fact that the industry wanted to get involved with him at this age shows something for the respect they had for him as a historical figure,'' he said. ``And the young musicians all respected him as well. Payton thought Doc was one of the greatest guys.''

Mr. Cheatham was a rail-thin man whose copper complexion, angular features and wild mop of dark, wavy hair reflected the centuries-old connections between Africans and American Indians in the South.

He was born to a middle-class Tennessee family, one that had many professionals, including doctors -- hence Mr. Cheatham's nickname.

One opera-singer aunt, who taught music at Tuskegee Institute, was Mr. Cheatham's first music teacher. As a conetist while still in high school, he began backing musicians such as Bessie Smith at Nashville's Bijou Theatre, and he later went on the road, accompanying black vaudeville shows that toured the South.

He ended up in Chicago, where he first met Armstrong, King Oliver, Freddie Keppard and other New Orleans jazzmen. He was lauded for his playing, but was fired by bandleader Charlie Johnson because he couldn't read music.

Mr. Cheatham resolved to learn to read music. When he did, he secured employment for eight years as lead trumpeter in Cab Calloway's Cotton Club orchestra.

During the late '40s and early '50s, Mr. Cheatham entered a phase in his career that has been largely overlooked: For most of the decade, he played in many of New York's major Latin bands. Bandleaders such as Machito and Perez Prado melded Afro-Cuban dance rhythms and song forms such as the mambo with jazz arrangements and sensibilities. Mr. Cheatam's lead-trumpet skills were perfect for this setting.

Not until he was well into his 60s did Doc Cheatham become known as a top trumpet soloist. He began to explore further the Armstrong and New Orleans style he had fallen in love with as a young man, and he spent the better part of seven years studying the music and transforming his playing into a solo sound.

About that time, Mr. Cheatham also began singing live and on record, offering smooth renditions of standards and of such Tin Pan Alley tunes as Irving Berlin's ``How Deep Is the Ocean,'' Hoagy Carmichael's ``Stardust,'' Johnny Mercer's ``Jeepers Creepers'' and Andy Razaf's ``Black and Blue.''

In 1991, he was honored at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, where he was lauded by Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.

Mr. Cheatham had a love for young musicians, spending many days lecturing college students and holding clinics for them. His last project with Payton was an example of this.

Mr. Cheatham, who occasionally smoked cigars, offered reason for his longevity.

But Payton said he believed Mr. Cheatham simply did not think about age. ``The thing I love about Doc,'' Payton said last month, ``is that he hasn't let his years interfere with his creativity. He's still hungry and searching, which is why he keeps going.''

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.


The Associated Press contributed to this article.


Philadelphia Online -- The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & Region -- Copyright Tuesday, June 3, 1997