One of the very last survivors of the early days of jazz, trumpeter Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham attracted attention from the historically- inclined right up to his death in 1997 at the age of 91. His career recapitulated much of the history of jazz as a whole: he came of age hearing and playing with the New Orleans masters of the music’s classic period; he participated in the big band movement that defined jazz in the 1930s; after the Second World War he affiliated himself with popular Latin dance orchestras on one hand and appeared with select, connoisseur-oriented small-group jazz combos on the other. As if defying time, his later recordings and performances were his best, and it was toward the end of his life that he allowed himself more often to step into the spotlight as a soloist.

Doc Cheatham was born in Nashville on June 13, 1905. Cheatham took up the cornet and soon after the trumpet as a teenager, taking lessons from two itinerant circus trumpeter brothers named Professor N. C. Davis and Professor C. M. Davis. He landed a job in the pit orchestra at Nashville’s Bijou theatre, which played host to great performers of the black touring circuit of the 1920s such as Bessie Smith. He also played in a small band based at Nashville’s historically black Meharry Medical College, acquiring the nickname “Doc” as a result.

His parents hoped that he would indeed become a doctor, but instead Cheatham headed for Chicago, a city that was just coming into its own as a jazz mecca when he arrived in 1925. Rubbing elbows with already-legendary trumpeters like Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard, and “King” Oliver, he took another crucial step forward musically when he learned to read musical notation. “I was in {pianist} Charlie Johnson’s band only one night,” he recalled in a Down Beat interview. I was fired that same night. . . .I couldn’t read the show music. So that’s when I got busy down there. I found a teacher, Viola something.” In 1927 Cheatham made his first recording.

Cheatham moved to the East Coast in 1927 and did stints with several celebrated bands, including McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Stable employment came during an eight-year tenure with bandleader Cab Calloway, from 1932 to 1940. Cheatham had been recommended by jazz musician Benny Carter. Calloway’s band, often performing at New York’s renowned Cotton Club, was one of the most successful of the era.

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