Ken Leighton noon, Dec. 13
Sound description: Kansas City-style blues.
RIYL: Odetta, Dinah Washington, Big Mama Thornton
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- Of Note: "Jeannie Cheatham" · Jan. 2, 2008
Ex-Band Members: Jimmy Cheatham, Trombone
Influences: Big Mama Thornton, Dinah Washington, Odetta, Cab Calloway, T-Bone Walker, Joe Williams, Al Hibbler, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Thad Jones, Ornette Coleman, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Witherspoon, Marian McPartland, B.B. King, Little Milton, Artie Blues, Boy White, Chick Willis, Willie Cobbs
Singer/pianist Jeannie Cheatham’s musical style was shaped in the church choir in Akron, Ohio. She began to study piano when she was five and went on to play in the school band. She and Jimmy Cheatham taught at the University of Wisconsin before moving to San Diego in 1978, where they continue to make their home.
Her longtime musical partner (and husband) Jimmy Cheatham retired in 1993 from the University of California San Diego as professor of music. Jimmy was such a valuable resource, however, that UCSD officials hired him back immediately to continue in his role as Jazz Ensemble Director. Over the years, he has played bass trombone with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Thad Jones, and Ornette Coleman, and was musical director for Chico Hamilton. He arranges all the songs for the Sweet Baby Blues Band and co-writes with Jeannie.
Jeannie performed with Big Mama Thornton off and on for ten years. She was featured with Thornton and Sippie Wallace in the award-winning PBS television special Three Generations of the Blues. In 1984, she toured with Cab Calloway. Prior to that, she was on the road accompanying blues greats such as T-Bone Walker, Joe Williams, Al Hibbler, Dinah Washington, Odetta, and Jimmy Witherspoon.
Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham and the Sweet Baby Blues Band have performed at the Long Beach Blues Festival and the Long Beach Jazz Festival, the San Francisco Blues Festival, Playboy Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, and the Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival. The have also appeared in a jazz festival in New Zealand.
-- excerpted from press bio
The jazz world suffered a tremendous loss with the passing of bass trombonist Jimmy Cheatham on January 12, 2007. Speaking with his wife and musical partner, Jeannie Cheatham, at her La Jolla home just prior to Jimmy's passing, one is struck by her graciousness as well as an infectious laugh and a wealth of knowledge that she's more than happy to share.
Jeannie and her husband arrived in San Diego in 1977 already in the midst of an incredible music career. Although they had recorded numerous tracks with other artists, it wasn't until their arrival here that their music made it to major-label status, which in the process gave San Diego's jazz scene a major shot in the arm. A master of Kansas City-styled jazz blues, Jimmy was born June 18, 1924, and studied at the New York Conservatory of Modern Music. Jeannie, on the other hand, was born on August 14, 1927, in Akron, Ohio. By the age of five she was already immersed in music, thanks to her family, taking piano lessons and eventually accompanying her mother in the choir. "I loved classical music," she remembered. "But then my mother let me go to a party and I heard the album After Hours by Avery Parrish." Jeannie fell in love with jazz as a teenager and it wasn't long before word of her keyboard prowess reached the world of touring musicians. She toured with Cab Calloway and by the end of the 1950s had accompanied everyone from T-Bone Walker, Dinah Washington, and Dakota Staton to Jimmy Witherspoon, Bo Diddley, and Johnny Ray.
In 1956, when Jeannie was in Buffalo, New York for a jam session and Jimmy had come to town to visit his mother, the two musicians met. Romance quickly ensued, and the pair married in 1959. They eventually settled in the New York area where Jimmy was employed during the 1960s as music director for Chico Hamilton's group. In 1964 Jeannie recorded her first album, Academy Awards in Jazz, with fellow pianist Roberta Como. "We did 'Over the Rainbow' in three keys," she laughed, joking that trying to stay in tune was the thing she remembers most about that experience.
The couple continued to perform and record with many big names, including Ornette Coleman and Count Basie. Jimmy even had a short stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1972. Throughout the 1970s he taught at Bennington College in Vermont, then at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The Cheathams relocated to San Diego in 1978 and settled in La Jolla, where Jimmy taught in the jazz studies program at UCSD. The couple dove into the local music community right away and quickly became a crucial element of the local jazz set. From 1978 through 1984, they ran weekly jam sessions at both the Sheraton and Bahia hotels, stopping only when a resurgence of interest in the couple's music began to gain international recognition.
In 1983, Jeannie was featured in a documentary called Three Generations of Blues alongside legendary blues singers Sippie Wallace and Big Mama Thornton. The duo toured extensively with their own Sweet Baby Blues Band, earning the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque de Jazz award in 1985 for their debut album. The Cheathams never seemed to slow down. The band performed on NBC-TV's Tonight Show in 1988.
In 1993 Jimmy became Professor Emeritus at UCSD upon his retirement, although he was quickly back at the campus, this time as director of the jazz ensemble. He finally retired in 2005 at the age of 81, having mentored and taught generations of aspiring musicians.
In 2006, Jeannie's autobiography, Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On: My Life in Music, was published by the University of Texas Press and included a six-song EP. Painting a vivid picture of a long and storied career in music, the book is essential reading. "I didn't sit down to write an autobiography," she said. "Originally, I started to write an article on Big Mama Thornton. Hers was such a lovely story that needed to be told. And that's when someone told me I should get my own story down. It took a while to do it because I wrote it while on the road."
Jimmy Cheatham underwent heart surgery in December 2006 and passed away in January 2007. His wife indicated that the band was considering whether or not to continue performing.
-- Written by Bart Mendoza for San Diego Troubadour, used with permission