Full Circle

Enlistment Blues: How I joined the Army, met Lester Young and Jo Jones, and found a career in jazz

Jimmy Cheatham. Photo by Michael Oletta.

Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham

Jimmy Cheatham’s memoirs of life in the Army during World War II as told to Jim Trageser. Part One.

Jimmy Cheatham was head of the UC San Diego jazz program from 1978-2005. He played in Chico Hamilton’s band in the 1960s, also serving as arranger. He briefly played in Duke Ellington’s band in the early 1970s, while trombonist Chuck Connors was on a medical break. In the 1980s, Jimmy and his wife, Jeannie, hosted a weekly jam session at the Harbor Island Sheraton and then at the Mercedes Room at the Bahia Resort in Mission Bay every Sunday night. The core of the regulars became the Sweet Baby Blues band, which went on to record seven albums for Concord Records. Jimmy died in January 2007.

Jimmy’s recollections of his time in a segregated Army band during World War II was taken from a series of interviews conducted in 1990 and ’91 in anticipation of an autobiography of Jimmy and Jeannie. While that book never came to fruition, Jeannie did end up writing her own autobiography, Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On (University of Texas Press, 2006).

I enlisted in the service at 18 years of age, in February of 1943. In fact, at that time my mother had to sign for me. She was shook up when I said, “I want to enlist.”

The main reason that motivated me to enlist was that I was in a high school fraternity. It was really a neighborhood fraternity, but everybody was in high school. It was called Phi Sigma. We convened at the Urban League Center, where all the different people in the neighborhood came for Cub Scout meetings, Boy Scout meetings and all kinds of social functions. Out of the Cub Scout-Boy Scout relationship, the next big thing was to become a Phi Sigma brother. This was where we all came together, even though we may have come from different high schools.

We knew what was happening with the war, but at the same time, people were making the best of it. Plus, it was the first time that blacks had the opportunity to make one hundred dollars a week, to have a job that paid that kind of money.

Initially, no one thought in terms of going into combat. I think the sophistication about that is much higher today. It was just the idea that everybody who was within the draft age was moving out. Then it finally got to the point that they were getting a lot of the young men that were just graduating from high school. I had already graduated, and really, 95 percent of the fraternity guys were going and the last five percent were getting ready to leave. I decided to volunteer because I was the youngest of all of them and had no desire to be left behind.

The college plans were there; the war had something to do with the interruption, but the college plans at that time were mostly based on scholarship and with the black schools. There were a couple of the fraternity brothers who were down at Virginia Union and at Howard as well as Wilberforce. The stronger ones athletically were down at Virginia Union. They, in turn, naturally were helping each other to get scholarships to come into Virginia Union. I played football and ran track—I ran the 100 and 220 meters—and also swam on the swimming team. That was part of the plans, but again, the war interrupted all of that. Even the guys that were already in college eventually had to suit up in terms of whichever service they were able to get into. And most of us were in the Army, because even at that time it was very difficult to try to get in the Air Force, or even the Navy, because blacks weren’t fully accepted.

What happened the day I enlisted was very interesting. We had to be up by five o’clock in the morning and convene in a theater, the closest theater in the neighborhood there. We all lined up on the main street leading down there, you see, and then they marched us right into the theater, called roll and had what they called a briefing. This was the day after we signed up. After they briefed us, they put us on a bus. We had to go to the nearest Army facility which, being in Buffalo, was Fort Niagara. And so that’s where I was inducted, Fort Niagara, New York. I was there for three weeks to a month. But it varied with everybody, because even there we were split up. That wasn’t boot camp, it was what you call an induction center; then after that, everybody went different directions to whatever boot camp for basic training.

Every morning, we had to get up and exercise and get shots—go through the whole inoculations and morning briefing. They didn’t issue uniforms until three or four days to a week after we got there. Then we were issued our buck private uniforms. And, naturally, we were told how to keep them clean. Every day there would be an assembly and roll call and they’d say, “Step aside,” and for those who stepped aside, then they’d read off the orders that they’d be shipping out at such-and-such o’clock. They never knew where they were going, though. And so finally, it came up to me. The very next day, we went to the railway and got on the train.

We rode for days and nights; it was a long ride, you know. It seemed like we had a good three meals in terms of that ride, and we always had to come out of our coach and go in the back where these big boxcars were, that’s where the kitchen was, and they served the food. Everybody was trying to figure out, “Well, where are we? Where are we going?” Nobody knew, because it was top secret; maintaining high security. Finally, I woke up and looked out and saw this red clay and said, “Uh oh, we’re headed south!” That’s when I knew we were somewhere from Tennessee to Mississippi into Alabama. And, sure enough, when we finally got to our destination, it was Fort McClellan, Alabama. I was born in Birmingham, see.

We got off the train at the rail head. At that time, noncommissioned officers were black, but the commissioned officers were white. It was rough—just like you see in some of the more recent movies, especially about the soldiers in World War II. They’d scare you half to death with all their rough talk. Half of it was kind of softened via our induction, but our induction had been kinder and they were a little more considerate. But now this was it! This is it, now, because we’re going for our basic training.

Anyway, they had this little sergeant. He looked like he stood about five-two; he was short. And he had this big, bony face—like a Napoleanic kind of thing. And he chose me to pick on. Right away.

“Ah, New York, eh? Well, we’re gonna show you New York so-and-so Yankees where it’s really at….” He was a southerner, but not deep South. They told us what to do and they sectioned us off and then marched us back to our company—we became assigned to a company. So, we went back to our company and got assigned to our huts and bunks and naturally began prepping them; you know, the general military instructions in terms of what’s demanded of us so that we can become good, tough fighting soldiers.

When we started boot camp, it was scheduled to be eight weeks’ training. When my cousin went in earlier, it was four to six weeks’ training. While I was doing my eight weeks’ training, they extended it to 13 weeks.

I really was a soldier; I worked at it real hard. That was the ethic then: whatever the situation you run into, the best thing that you can do is do your best, because that’s the only thing you have to fall back on in case all the odds are seemingly up against you. And when you know you’ve really done your best, you can still stand tall no matter what happens. So that’s what we were always told, anyway, even family-wise. That was it. Specifically coming out of the African-American experience, with the work ethic that you always had to be twice as good. So that was the most prevalent consciousness that most of us had, and I know I had it, and we always bucked up each other behind that; that was part of the whole family culture. Like I said, I worked at my training to, again, be twice as good, and my whole objective was to be twice as good as my company commander.

I didn’t even know anything about a band then. It was all straight-out vigorous, infantry Army training. I had no idea that right next to our company, a block away, was the band headquarters. I didn’t discover that until later, after getting about four to six weeks of training, because there’s a certain period there where you’re quarantined to the area. That’s why it took me a while to find out what was going on; you couldn’t go to the PX or anything like that.

One day during training, shortly after quarantine lifted, we had one of our rigorous field exercises in chemical and germ warfare with a mask and the whole thing. Just before coming out you had to lift your mask and they say take a short whiff, and sure enough, man, it was like a razor blade cut your throat.

Anyway, coming back from there, we came by the band going on an assignment, and I saw the band and I said, “Wow….” After that, once we were done with our duties and showered and ate and all, we were free pretty much to go to the PX and stuff like that, so my first thing was being at the band room. The band had its own barracks, rehearsal hall, everything. There was someone I recognized in passing. His name was Sax Garrison—a saxophone player, of course. And he had had a band at Ann Montgomery’s Little Harlem on Michigan Avenue, which is like a replica of your Cotton Club, your sepia Cotton Club. So, I went by there, walked in and met another sergeant, whose name was Sgt. Joel Porter. He was a trombone player and he had done a stint with Jimmie Lunceford at one time. Sax Garrison remembered me because I hung out in night clubs very early and they would watch over me. So that’s how he remembered seeing my face. So, we talked. I said, “Boy, it sure was great hearing the band,” because they were playing. “Look,” he said, “there’s a shortage. According to Army regulations, there’s supposed to be 28 musicians in an Army band. And we’re short a trombone player.” I said, “Really? I play trombone.” So, he said, “Give us your name and everything and we’ll have the master sergeant set it up for you to come over and audition for the band.” Now that’s when I really got a chance to meet the piano player, Eddie Taylor, out of Rochester. He had graduated from Eastman School of Music and was a fantastic musician. He was a musician’s musician, perfect pitch and all that. If the piano was low, he’d play in B natural in order to match B flat. It didn’t make any difference to him, although it was painful to be so out of tune. They called him Short Joel Porter, see. So, he pulled out these marches, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I didn’t have my own horn; I went into the Army naked. Then, you didn’t carry any excess baggage. Today, you see guys with guitars strapped over their shoulders. They gave me a silver slide trombone; it was a York, I think, the kind of horn that they make for the Army, you know.

Joel Porter was like the assistant director, he was a sergeant. And Sgt. Lewis was a master sergeant. Well, Joel Porter just gave me the audition exam and pulled out these marches. When I looked at what he showed me I didn’t say anything because, like I said, you learned quick don’t volunteer. But I had played them all, from high school and also in the community band. The undertaker, who was a minister, the Rev. Sherman L. Walker, sponsored us as a community band before we went into the service. Sgt. Porter said, “Play this passage,” or “Play this” or “Play that.” I waltzed through it. He said, “Well, all right, you read pretty good.” He said, “Look forward to hearing from us because you did a good job there and there’s nobody else, so I don’t see any reason why unless someone else comes and we gotta go through all that rigamarole to choose who.” And it just so happened, I guess, no one else volunteered.

So anyway, I got the message within 48 hours that after my training they would send word for me to come over to the band barracks. In the meantime, the lieutenant also explained to me that on Tuesday evenings they broadcasted from the Fort McClellan radio station and how would I like to join them? I said, “Wow, I’d love to do that.” He said, “Okay, we’ll have the colonel who is over the bands send a requisition for you to come out of your company so you can make the broadcasts with us.”

So, it happened. And, oh, it was a gas, man! I couldn’t wait; every Tuesday night I’d come back from whatever training we had at the time, shower off—I wouldn’t even eat! —and make hay toward the band room and broadcast. So, it got to be a thing there, naturally, with my bunkmates where I stayed with my company. They began to kind of tease me on a competitive basis: “Ah, you’re just a jive shucker! Now that you’re in a band you think you’re so…” the whole bit.

So that’s when I learned a great experience, because what happened was, I blew my mouth off. I said, “That’s all right, when I finish my training, man, later for all you cats, I’m going to the band,” not realizing that it got back to this little sergeant. At that time, he was picking on me all the time, I was his special project. He said, “Ah, we got a musician. Thinks he’s gonna be gettin’ around, gettin’ all soft.” He spoke all kinds of bad language which I don’t prefer to repeat. I found out that after I finished my training, he had told the company commander about my joining the band.

To be continued in the June issue of the San Diego Troubadour.

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