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Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham Swing Hand in Hand When It Comes to Their Take on Kansas City Sound


Ask Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham what it was like when they met at a Buffalo, N.Y., jam session in the mid-'50s and they'll say almost in unison: "It was bells."

"Bells" is old-school hipster talk for something noteworthy. The phrase was coined by the late master of such lingo, saxophonist Lester "Prez" Young. Jimmy picked up the usage when he served in an Army unit during World War II that included Young, Count Basie drummer "Papa" Jo Jones and Los Angeles-born drummer Chico Hamilton.

"I had the top bunk," trombonist Jimmy recalled from the Cheatham home in San Diego. "Chico had the bottom."

Jeannie Cheatham, the pianist and vocalist of the Cheathams' eight-piece Sweet Baby Blues Band, which plays the Jazz Club at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday, remembers the night they met.

"I was playing in Toronto, and on Saturday night after the performance we would cut out to Buffalo at 11 p.m. and drive to the jam session there that would go all night with breakfast served in the morning. Jimmy and I were both coming off disastrous first marriages. We weren't interested in living with anybody. But when I met this beautiful trombone player who was into music like I was, well, it was bells."

They were married in 1957. The depth of their relationship is reflected in their conversation, which, like their music, proceeds as if from one mind. "If I'm hesitant about remembering the date, it's because it doesn't seem that long," Jimmy said.

"It doesn't seem that long at all," added Jeannie, "because of the music. All these years we've been committed to music and marriage. That why the bells rang so loud."

Jeannie grew up in Ohio, where her grandmother was an organist and her uncle a trumpet player in a band called the Sultans of Swing. She began playing piano at her church at age 5, began formal training at 6 and joined the community big band at 15. Before she was out of her teens, she was accompanying such blues and pop greats as Jimmy Rushing, Odetta and Dinah Washington.

"Dinah was very exacting," Jeannie said. "She kept all the door receipts in a cigar box that she held while she sang. She used a clicker to keep a count of people who came through the door."

"She'd count on that clicker while she was singing," Jimmy added.

Meanwhile, Jimmy, through his relationship with Basie drummer Jones, was getting an education in the kind of Kansas City jazz that defines the Cheatham sound to this day. At the same time, he was establishing a reputation as a top-notch arranger. He worked in New York City show bands and had stints with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Thad Jones.

When his old Army buddy Hamilton looked to relocate from L.A. to New York, he enlisted Jimmy to contract out his recording sessions and be his music director. Among their best-known projects was Hamilton's 1966 Impulse recording "The Dealer," which included such established and future all-stars as percussionist Willie Bobo, guitarists Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell, saxophonist Archie Shepp (who plays piano on the recording) and bassist Richard Davis. Jimmy arranged all the music.

"It was wonderful to get those great well-known guys together with the young guys of great potential," Jimmy said. "That's where Larry Coryell was baptized in the blues. And Archie Shepp playing piano, he was just so funky."

Jimmy was tabbed by trumpeter-educator Bill Dixon to finish out pianist Cecil Taylor's tenure at the University of Wisconsin in 1972 and ended up staying five years. Jeannie began teaching there as well. The two moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and were both brought to UC San Diego by pianist-instructor Cecil Lytle in 1978. Jimmy continues to teach there as senior lecturer emeritus.

A student introduced Concord record producer Carl Jefferson to the Cheathams in the early '80s, and the result--beginning in 1984 with "Sweet Baby Blues" and continuing through Jefferson's death in 1995 and the release of "Good Nuz Bluz"--was a string of recordings from their rollicking, Kansas City-inspired band.

Over the years, such stellar players as the late bassist Red Callender, late alto saxophonist Curtis Peagler, trumpeter Snooky Young and drummer John "Ironman" Harris have been regular members. Recording guests have included saxophonists Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Hank Crawford and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson; violinist Papa John Creach; and trumpeter Clora Bryant. The lineup that appears with them this weekend comprises drummer Harris; saxophonists Louis Taylor, Herman Riley and Ernie Fields Jr.; trumpeter Nolan "Cat Daddy" Shaheed; and bassist Richard Reid.

"It takes real versatility to play Kansas City style," Jimmy said, "because it's a marriage between jazz and the blues. Because it came out of the Midwest, it didn't have to be as intellectual as the music from the East or West Coast. But you had to make them feel it."

"During the Depression when everyone was in bread lines," starts Jeannie . . . "Kansas City was still swinging," finishes Jimmy.

"The swingingest place in the whole country," said Jeannie: "24-7."

"24-7," echoed Jimmy. "Let the good times roll."

"But Kansas City is only part of our style," Jimmy continued. "If you say polkas, how many different kinds of polkas are there? It's the same with jazz. We play all different kind of music, and we play it different all the time. We don't march, we swing."

"We will swing you to death," Jeannie said with a laugh.


The Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham Sweet Baby Blues Band plays Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. in the Jazz Club at Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. shows $44, 9:30 p.m. shows $38. (714) 556-2787.

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