Local jazz icon lays it all out in autobiography

North County Times Newspaper
San Diego, CA

April 22, 2006

By: Jim Trageser - Staff Writer

Jeannie Cheatham waited until her 78th year to tackle this book-writing racket, so don't expect her to be intimidated by her late start. After all, this is a woman who didn't release her first album under her own name until she was 57, who didn't grace her first national magazine cover until her 63rd year. Late starts are nothing new to Jeannie Evans Cheatham.

The longtime San Diego County jazz icon ---- with her husband, Jimmy, she co-leads the long-running Sweet Baby Blues Band ---- recently had her autobiography "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On: My Life in Music" ($24.95) published by the University of Texas Press. If their now-defunct Sunday night jam sessions at the Sheraton and, later, Bahia, are the stuff of legend, her book captures the fullness of a career that extends far beyond San Diego. She writes about her teen years during World War II in Akron, Ohio; the years when Jimmy was musical director for jazz drummer Chico Hamilton; a long stint in Madison, Wis.; Jimmy's years leading the UC San Diego jazz program; and their arrival on the national stage in the 1980s up to the present.

Still actively performing with Jimmy, Jeannie recently spoke by phone about her new career as an author. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "Meet Me" is that Jeannie never set out to write a book.

"I was just going to write a little short story about Big Mama (Thornton) and Little Mattie because of how they grew up together and they were so faithful to each other. And after we did 'Three Generations' ('... of the Blues,' for KPBS-TV in 1992), I kept thinking how no one was writing about Big Mama.

"I kept digging back, until I came to realize I was writing my own story."

Even at that, Jeannie said she didnít really work on the book in a formal manner the first few years.

"No way. Most of the time I was writing stuff on the bus or in the mall. It seemed like I wrote better when I was in motion."

The book has a distinctive structure, with short chapters each detailing an event, a person, a turning point. Jeannie said that all came about organically through the process of writing.

"There was no design at all," she said. "I just wrote until I ended. I didnít extend just because I needed extra paper. ... If I got inspired to write something, I wrote. Then Iíd put a chapter title on it. I never had a timetable.

"This is my first book, after all; nobody told me how I'm supposed to write!"

All of which may explain Jeannie's old-school method of writing what is a 400-plus page book: by hand.

"I wrote it longhand on a yellow striped pad. I had a woman who did all the typing for me. I'd do some chapters and then I'd take them down to her on the yellow pad and she'd type them up for me."

To the surprise of no one who has encountered the Cheathams, Jeannie said her husband was involved throughout: "Jimmy would look over every chapter."

Jeannie said her one regret is that the book was published after the deaths of Stanley and Helen Oakley Dance, the venerable jazz and blues journalists who retired to Vista in the 1980s and struck up a strong friendship with the Cheathams. Stanley had helped Duke Ellington write his autobiography, and Helen wrote a respected biography of Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker.

Jeannie said she never even got to pick Stanley or Helen's minds about the writing craft because while they were still alive, she didn't yet realize she was writing a book.

In fact, Jeannie said she purposely kept any potential influences to a minimum.

"I wouldn't even read anyone else's autobiographies or biographies until I was finished," she said. "I didn't want to be impressed or even feel I was unconsciously copying anybody. I don't think I have anybody else's style at all."

Now that the book is finally in stores, Jeannie said she hopes those who read it find something to take away from it.

"I just hope they get the black experience," she said. "And perhaps they can find something in there that can help them or give them encouragement. I think the whole theme of the book is resilience ---- the Big R."

And for those just looking for a little light reading?

"It's also an inside look at the jazz world and the world of entertainment," she added. "It's not all pretty; by the time you get on stage and do one hour, you'll see how much it takes to get out there."

With her first book under her belt, Jeannie said she and Jimmy might record another album. And might she take pen to paper again?

"I might like to squeeze out one more book," she allowed. "Maybe."

A novel? A history?

She pondered this for a few seconds before breaking out laughing.

"I've no idea," she admitted.


Return to the top of www.JeannieCheatham.com