New Orleans has finally “adopted” Doc Cheatham, the 90-year-old trumpeter who is a Nashville native and New York resident. He, in turn, loves that he’s considered to be a member of the local clan.
Though other, perhaps less likely, musicians have been taken into the fold, Cheatham’s recent adoption is a natural. For Cheatham knows and understands the heart of New Orleans and its music, having first heard its pulse from the originators- Louis Armstrong, Joe “King” Oliver and Freddie Keppard. In fact, the mute he uses was a gift from Oliver. And though his career, for the most part, was playing in the big bands of Cab Calloway and other leaders, recording with Billie Holiday, and spending time with Latin bands led by Perez Prado, Machito and other giants, Cheatham never lost the desire to be a New Orleans-style jazzman. In fact, he says that not playing New Orleans jazz, his first love, earlier in his career caused him a great deal of dissatisfaction.
That has all changed and now Cheatham is a traditional New Orleans trumpeter. For the last three years, he has been performing here regularly, and he will headline the “Grand Celebration” at the Palm Court on August 30 honoring the issuance of the Louis Armstrong stamp.
Another indication of Cheatham’s total immersion in this city’s jazz is that his 1994 album Swinging Down in New Orleans (Jazzology) -which naturally includes mentor Armstrong’s material- was recorded locally for a local label with a band full of New Orleans musicians. With his upcoming performance in mind, we talked to Cheatham, who is one of the last links to Louis Armstrong, about New Orleans’ and Armstrong’s immense influence on him and his music.
When were you first introduced to New Orleans jazz?
I was in Chicago in 1926. You know most all of the musicians from New Orleans were brought to Chicago to play in the different cabarets and speakeasies and everything. That’s when I got acquainted With all of the New Orleans musicians that were there. I didn’t know anything about [New Orleans music] before that.
So what were you playing at the time?
I wasn’t really playing there, I was just being stranded. So I was just working in restaurants and whatever I could trying to make a living until I could get out and meet those musicians and hear them. When I reached Chicago, that was the first time that I really started deciding that I wanted to continue to play-that’s where I got my schooling from, in Chicago. When I left Chicago I had, you might say, graduated from the playing of the style of New Orleans music. That’s what I wanted to do in the first place and that’s what I did.
And it was during the two years you were in Chicago that you got acquainted with Louis Armstrong?
That’s right, by accident. I met his wife first and I didn’t know who she was. I met Lillian at the Musicians Union. And she was a graduate of Fiske University in my home town, Nashville. And she helped me get a little work with her small band. Otherwise I wasn’t allowed to play in Chicago. There was a law there, that I had to be from New Orleans in order to get a job in Chicago as a musician. She had me with her outside of Chicago and then she also brought Louie in town and introduced him to me and he also helped me. He could help me get a job in Chicago where Al Capone prohibited that. But he was a good friend of Armstrong, so Armstrong had the authority to do what he wanted to do.
And you played with Armstrong there?
Yes, I did.
And this experience influenced you?
His horn playing was influencing everybody… everybody on earth.
In what specific ways do you think it influenced you the most? How did it affect your style?
Well, I didn’t have a style. I was just a player, I was ready to blossom out. I never heard anything like it before and I just felt he was the best man to listen to, although there were other good players in Chicago at the same time. He had more about him than anyone else there, he knew more. So I paid a lot of attention to him. I got what I thought I wanted but it took a long time.
So after Chicago you met up with Armstrong again?
Well yes, I met him and his band when he came to New York with Louis Russell’s band at the Strand Theater. And he invited me to come down and play with his band. That was in the ’30s, before I joined the Cab Calloway band. I may have met him again once or twice in Europe but after that he was hard to keep up with.
When was the first time you came to New Orleans?
I came through there once with Cab Calloway’s big band back in the ’30s. We played a theater for one one week. I didn’t get a chance to get around. Just a hard work’s week and we left out.
So did you ever come back and get a chance to get to know New Orleans?
About three years ago was my first time since then that I came to New Orleans. I was invited there. And I’ve been going there since.
Three years ago? You never came back in 60 years?
I didn’t realize that, because now it’s like you are a part of us.
Well, I want to be. Because that’s where jazz was born. And I think it is important to be there as much as possible. Well, people are so nice down there, so nice, you don’t have that sort of atmosphere up here. The first time I was sent down there by George Wein’s office to play the festival [the 1992 Jazz Fest]. And people liked me so, so then I played the Palm Court and that’s all I did the first time. The second time I played at the Fair Grounds and played the Palm Court twice and I played at the [Louisiana] Music Factory and then played at a private party. See, every time I go there there is more to do. It gets better and better every time.
I know you’ve done quite a number of workshops at area schools. Do you do that in other places?
They don’t invite me to do that everywhere. I may go to colleges where grown people who like to hear jazz played. But in New Orleans it’s these kids. And that’s very important, that’s more important than playing in colleges. You can teach them something, you know. I enjoy that very much. They ask thousands of questions.
You’ve also been recording with New Orleans artists now.
That’s very important to record with musicians in New Orleans. Because you learn more every time you play them. They don’t play like we do up here. There’s something different, special about them that you fall into line with them and it sticks with you. They have a different approach to jazz than anywhere else because it’s original. That’s what you don’t hear traveling around. You hear everything else but originality around the country. The real McCoy is right there in New Orleans.
What more specifically is it that’s different, the rhythm or…
It’s a feeling. Louis Armstrong had it and he had it all the rest of his life. He was born with a certain feeling and he and Joe Oliver were the beginners as far as I know, because I haven’t found anybody before them who had originated this type of playing. There was always some kind of rhythm going on in New Orleans way back in the 1800s, but there’s a different feeling that came out of New Orleans jazz in the 1900s and the late 1800s that is very hard to explain. It’s playing that comes from the heart. You don’t just get up there and play a whole lot of notes. You have to have heart. Sometimes I play some songs and I actually cry. I don’t understand that. Tears come down out of my eyes. That’s what I’m talking about. You don’t have that anywhere else.
I see you’re going to be playing with Nicholas Payton at the Palm Court. You’ve played with him before…
Yes, I’ve played with him several times. I think he’s wonderful, I think he’s really wonderful. After hearing him, I believe in reincarnation because he plays just like Joe Oliver and he looks sort of like him too. I made a little recording with him, but I don’t think it’s released yet. When I get to New Orleans we’re also going to arrange for the two of us to make a CD together. I’m very anxious to do that.
At the Palm Court gig are you going to be doing mostly Armstrong’s material?
I’ll play a lot of Louie’s songs. A lot of people accuse me of sounding like a New Orleans trumpet player. And once in a while a guy will come up to me and say, “Gee, it sounds like I hear a little Louie in your playing.” Well, I get that everywhere I go. But I wish I could. I wish I could play just like him. I have a lot in common with Louie Armstrong. I don’t know what it is but I believe I do.
So these days do you play pretty much exclusively New Orleans style jazz?
lf I get a job doing something else-a society job-I’ll do it because I have to eat, I have to pay the rent. At Sweet Basil [his weekly, Sunday gig at the legendary New York jazz club] I do a variety of things down there because we have a lot of elderly people that want to hear some old tunes, so I have to do that too, old songs like “Dinah” and things like that.
The strength of your blowing is legendary. Is there anything you do to maintain your strength? People talk about losing their lip…
There is no such thing as losing your lip. When I was young, I went to a teacher in New York and I was having lip trouble. He said, “What’s wrong?” And I said I think I’m losing my lip. Well, he got up out of the chair and dragged me into the bathroom in front of the mirror. And he said “See,your lip is still there …you’re probably working a little hard. Rest up a little bit.” So losing your lip, that’s a lot of baloney.
Do you still practice a lot?
I don’t practice a lot any more, but I practice some. I’m not trying to set the world on fire. I’m too old for that. But I practice enough for what I think I need.
It seems like you are having a renaissance of sorts with New Orleans.
It’s a new life.
A recent article in DownBeat mentioned that you also had a renaissance of sorts in the ’60s…
I was never satisfied because I wasn’t a jazz player but I knew my heart well enough to play it But I wasn’t allowed to play jazz solos because I was in big bands-I was in big bands for 20-some-odd years. It took me a long time. I was kind of happy when the big bands went out of style.
Of course, I suffered a long time trying to get myself together as a jazz player-it took me years to get back to when I was in Chicago and the New Orleans time there. I’m back there now. I think Louie must have shouted down from heaven and told me to get out there and play. Because now I feel wonderful, I feel better and I keep him with me all the time.
So I’m feeling better now and playing better. And as long as I’m alive I’m gonna sure play it, I’m gonna blow for as long as I’m alive. I’m happier now than I have ever been about playing. I’ve been through a lot of heartaches. I had people laughing at me when I started playing jazz. But I just turned my back on them. I knew what to do, it just took me a little while. Now people are telling me how great I am, how I changed, how I did it. I get that all the time. But I think Louie Armstrong was up there telling me to get out of that rut. I believe that. He was so nice to me I can’t help but think of him every day of my life and thank him. He helped me so much.
So did you hang out with him in those years? To hear you speak of him and his influence, it’s almost surprising that you really weren’t around him that much.
I couldn’t be. You know his wife was very strict with him. She watched over him day and night, she guided him and kept him away from harm. She took care of him, took care of his health as long as she could. She brought him to Chicago. He walked a chalk line, so to speak, and that’s what made him so great. He had so many chances of ruining himself. He never did any hanging out because she saw to it that he got his rest. They were playing him to death, sending him all over the world. Didn’t have vacations or anything. He’d be in Africa today and tomorrow he’d be in Detroit. We’re lucky to have had him and jazz wouldn’t have been the same without him.