As a teacher, trombonist Jimmy Cheatham paid homage to the past by preparing young music students at UC San Diego to take jazz into the future.
On stage, performing with the band he and his wife formed, he demonstrated why the music needed to live on. The band’s style of playing incorporates blues and jazz. It was, the Cheathams said, “unrestrained, exuberant, soulful, rollicking, growling, howling, roaring, wicked, virtuous wild and truthful.”
And a Cheatham solo was often the other half of a conversation started by his wife, vocalist and pianist Jeannie Cheatham. Using a plunger to cover and open the bell of the horn, creating an effect known as wah-wah, Cheatham played with a lyrical quality.
“It’s almost like he’s talking to her,” longtime friend and jazzman Buddy Collette said in an interview last week. The audiences “love it because it takes a real talent to do that. He’s one of the best at that.”
Cheatham died Jan. 12 at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. The cause was believed to be related to his heart, his wife said. He was 82.
In December, Cheatham underwent a noninvasive procedure to clear blocked arteries. But he was preparing for upcoming gigs with his band, including a performance scheduled for May at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
In a decades-long career, Cheatham, who was also an arranger and composer, played bass trombone with the giants of jazz: Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Ornette Coleman. Most recently, he played with his wife in their Sweet Baby Blues Band, formed in the mid-1980s. The band plays Kansas City-style blues, a sound he described as 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,” he said.
The couple’s debut album, “Sweet Baby Blues,” released on the Concord Jazz label in 1985, won a French Grand Prix du Disque. “Luv in the Afternoon” was voted blues album of the year in Down Beat’s 1991 Critics’ Poll.
James R. Cheatham was born June 18, 1924, in Birmingham, Ala., and was raised in Buffalo, N.Y. During World War II, he served in the Army and played in the 173rd Army Ground Force Band. The 173rd Division included such Count Basie alums as legendary saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young and drummers Chico Hamilton and “Papa” Jo Jones, who would become Cheatham’s mentor.
After his discharge, Cheatham studied music formally, first at the Conservatory of Modern Music in New York and later at the now-defunct Westlake College in Hollywood, where he took a course in scoring for films and television. Over the years, he wrote music for ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports,” several Broadway shows and television commercials.
One of the best-known projects that came out of his years playing with Hamilton was “The Dealer,” released in 1966. The band’s lineup included percussionist Willie Bobo, guitarists Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell, saxophonist Archie Shepp, who plays piano on the recording, and bassist Richard Davis. Cheatham and Hamilton also produced music for commercials.
During one trip back to Buffalo, Cheatham met Jeannie at a late-night jam session. Both had been married before, “but when I met this beautiful trombone player who was into music like I was, well, it was bells,” Jeannie Cheatham said in a 2000 interview with The Times.
In addition to his wife, Cheatham is survived by a daughter, Shirley Wilcher of Boston; and a son, Jonathan Cheatham of Wisconsin.
The melding of music and academia began in 1971, when Cheatham was invited to teach jazz at Bennington College in Vermont.
In 1978, he was invited to head the jazz program at UC San Diego. As an instructor, he gave students a solid foundation in traditional jazz and used his decades of experience to push them to greater levels.
In San Diego, the Cheathams became an integral part of the city’s jazz scene, holding an informal jazz session on Sunday evenings.
Cheatham retired from UC San Diego in 2005.
On his 80th birthday, Jeannie Cheatham collected letters from former students and presented them to her husband in a book.
“Through the music he taught them about life,” she said. “They’re still in touch with Jimmy, and now they have kids of their own.”