Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On

Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On
By Jeannie Cheatham
University of Texas Press

In the 1980’s and 1990’s Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham led the Sweet Baby Blues Band, which helped re-popularize honest blues-based swing combos in jazz. The Cheathams were close musical collaborators and one of the great jazz romances. Sadly, Mr. Cheatham passed away in January, but Mrs. Cheatham’s memoir, Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On, is in many ways a valentine to her trombonist husband.

Jeannie Cheatham started playing gigs around Ohio, including Springfield (home to my alma mater), the scene for some Jim Crowism, evidently drifting over the Kentucky or West Virginia borders. Cheatham explains she and her band bought ice cream at a well known parlor, to the dismay of an elderly African-American woman outside the store. Cheatham recalls:

“‘Well,’ [bandmember] Shakespeare said, ‘Today is your lucky day! We gonna treat you to ice cream in Isaly’s on Main Street in Springfield!” She looked frightened, but we each took one of her arms and marched back into the parlor and ordered her choice: vanilla ice cream shaped like a pyramid.” (P. 99)

[In 1990’s, if Isaly’s was still in business, it had lost its place as ice cream of choice to Young’s in nearby Yellow Springs, where all customers were welcome.]

It was in Buffalo that the Cheathams met, eventually leaving for New York. Jimmy Cheatham would later accept teaching positions in Wisconsin and San Diego, where the Cheathams together invigorated the local jazz scenes. Eventually, they established the Sweet Baby Blues band, which hit at the perfect time, with jazz tastes embracing swing and blues again. Before signing with Concord they met with a producer, Don Cooke, who evidently did not anticipate the shift in tastes then brewing. According to Cheatham:

“He greeted us warmly, then settled back in his seat to listen to the tape. When the music concluded, silence settled over us. Don hooked his hands behind his head and declared, ‘This stuff will never fly! You have to bring it up to date. Add a funk beat. Maybe some electronics . . .” (p. 314)

“Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On” was written in a moment of inspiration the night before they recorded their Concord debut. It garnered a great deal of radio play becoming their breakout tune. Cheatham describes the good vibe of the recording session:

“The cup of intuition ran over. We requested that the studio be darkned, only the music stands lighted, so we didn’t have to dig too far down to feel that it was ‘round midnight in some roundhouse on the outskirts of town.” (p. 329)

Cheatham writes candidly, with a distinct voice. Jazz fans will enjoy the stories of legendary jazz artists she worked with and befriended, including Babs Gonzales, Papa Jo Jones, Pete Johnson, and Jay McShann. Drawers is a great package that comes with a sampler CD of their Concord work, which of course begins with the title song. The publisher clearly showed confidence in Cheatham’s memoir, going to the expense of printing several photo inserts throughout the book and embossing the cover (but the decision not to include an index was odd).

Reading Drawers makes it clear how well matched Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham were in music and in life, which makes reading it more touching given his recent passing. However, Cheatham relates a rich full life together that brought great music into the world.