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The Story Behind Arni Cheatham's "Thing"

“If you want to hear pretty music, come to my second set of the night,” says the veteran saxophonist Arni Cheatham. “If you want to hear what’s on my mind, come to the first set. Because the first set is when I’m just letting it all out.”

Cheatham is a man with a lot on his mind. He’s a polymath artist who started out as a photographer, then picked up the sax to play in R&B and jazz bands in the 1960s, and then became an educator in the racially turbulent landscape of 1970s Boston. Today, at the age of 74, his mind is a whirlpool of memories, lessons and theories about music, religion, design, sociology, politics and semiotics. But he had just as much on his mind back in 1972 when he led his avant-jazz ensemble through two sprawling live concerts of darkly funky, spiritually ascendant improvisational jazz preserved for posterity on the LP Thing.

While it remained relatively obscure at the time of the release, the album has taken on greater significance through the years, especially for the insight it provides into the creative jazz scene that thrived in Boston throughout the seventies and eighties.

***

Arnold Cheatham arrived in Boston in the fall of 1969, coming from the Windy City by way of the US Army. “I was born in Chicago in 1944,” Arni says. “I was drafted into the military when I was 21, so I was in the service during the Vietnam era but I was stateside the whole time because I had hammertoes. When I brought this up upon receiving orders to go to Vietnam, the Army said, ‘Oh, we’ll fix those before we send you off’—they screwed ‘em up. And by the time they ruined both feet, there wasn’t enough of my tour of service left for me to go.”

Cheatham’s two-year stretch in the service was not a particularly happy time for him (“Me and the military were not a good fit,” he laughs). What he describes as the thing that “saved his soul” was a band called The Chetniks, which he joined, playing a blend of rhythm & blues, rock & roll, soul and jazz. “They allowed me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do,” Cheatham remembers. “When it was time for my solos, I would just go.” And so Cheatham went as a member of the Chetniks for eighteen months before returning home in 1967 to resume his pre-enlistment employment, working as a an accountant at AFCO Insurance Premium Finance Company in Chicago. But still, he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he should be pursuing music more seriously.

“I was doing gigs after work and all,” he remembers, “Changing clothes in the men’s room and hiding my horn under my desk. But the longer I did this the more I realized that my joy was in music, not in bean counting. So with help and tutelage from my close friend, Carl Snyder, I moved to Boston.”

Boston? Not New York, which was the mecca for serious jazz exponents at the time? Why not Los Angeles, where session fees from the burgeoning studio recording economy subsidized a more adventurous jazz underground? Even Chicago itself was a hotbed of jazz progressivism, with amalgamations such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Art Ensemble of Chicago providing a community framework to support young jazz players with a taste for the avant-garde. But… Boston?

“There was a lot going on in Boston at the time,” Cheatham explains. “The Berklee School of Music—which is now known as the Berklee College of Music—was a lot more interesting then.” Indeed, Berklee was ahead of most music conservatories in embracing current innovations in popular music such as funk, rock & roll and the fusion of these genres with jazz, and it had become a magnet for ambitious avant-garde musicians. “I hung out there for one semester, that was all I had the money for,” Cheatham says. “But I made a lot of contacts during that period of time. So that was a good jumping-off point.”

At Berklee Cheatham studied with the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, and met fellow students like electric pianist Vagn Leick, electric bassist David Saltman, trumpeter Wil Letman and drummer Kiah “T” Knowlin. These players would form the nucleus for the group that would later become known as Thing.

“There were a lot of very interesting things going on in Boston,” Cheatham says. “First of all, there were lots of little clubs sprinkled around. You weren’t going to get rich playing there but at least there was an audience, a following. A lot of it was college kids, of course. And sometimes it could be hard for them to really get in the feeling. Like, if you called out to the audience ‘Can I get an amen?’ you might get a lot of quizzical looks! But the audience dug the rhythm and energy and they were into the music.”

Cheatham also worked with other local musicians to form a larger alliance, similar to what the AACM had been doing back in Chicago: “I joined in with some other folks, and together we created something called the Jazz Coalition of Boston,” Cheatham explains. “Mark Harvey, trumpet, bandleader and minister came up with the idea. I heard about an early exploratory meeting, attended and was immediately interested. As the word got around, it wasn’t long before a whole bunch of really core people in the Boston jazz scene heard about the idea, thought it was a great one and joined the crew. And we would put on these events, these weekly concerts. Until it got to the point we said we were going to try to do something that hadn’t been done before.

“We went on to do a whole week’s worth of Jazz in the City of Boston; we called it Jazz Week. We produced outdoor concerts, special events in clubs, homeless shelters, parks, schools, libraries and prisons. And we had no money… but somehow we pulled it off! We pulled it off the first year, the second year. The third year, some people—some big people—were interested. Some people with money to spend. Then the Boston Globe went and revived a jazz festival they had done once in the past, and of course they had the money to promote it on a large scale, so they sort of co-opted what we were doing.”

***

Through all this, Cheatham remained active on the scene, playing different strains of jazz under various group formations. “I was working with the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra [led by Mark Harvey], as well as working with small groups, performing throughout the Boston area: concert venues, clubs, basement places, the loft scene by Chinatown, all of that. Subsequent to Thing I had a couple of small groups; one called Search, another group called Smoke. Always sticking with the monosyllabic naming.

“The name Thing… that happened by accident,” Cheatham laughs. “We went into the studio, we recorded some stuff. The person who did the recording had to label the tapes, and we hadn’t really given him any official title for the group or the project. So he just wrote ‘Arni’s Thing’ on the tapes. So when we wanted to do something with the tapes we recorded, we had to think about what to call it. Someone said, ‘Why don’t we just call it Arni’s Thing?’ I said, ‘Nah, take my name off it… Let’s just call it Thing.’”

The “thing” on the tapes was documentation of two live sessions by the band, the first having been played on April 30, 1972 at Building 42 in the college city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The second session was at the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University a week later on May 6, 1972. The music is a searing, searching exploration of communion through the realms of electric jazz, psychedelic rock and throbbing funk, all of it fully composed extemporaneously by Cheatham, Leick, Knowlin, Saltman and Letman, along with guitarist Bob O’Connell and conguero Dorian McGee.

“We didn’t have a score for all this,” Cheatham says. “We’d meditate for 15 minutes, then we’d hit the stage. Everything would just flow spontaneously from there.”

As was the case for many musicians of the era, Eastern philosophy and aesthetics had increasingly infused Cheatham’s approach to working with music as a means not just for entertainment, but for communication and enlightenment.

“I was reading everything from Gandhi to the Bible to the Sufi Message to Isaac Asimov,” Cheatham says. “I’ve been Baptist, I’ve been Catholic, Christian Orthodox—all these are just places to be, to celebrate. But the real thing behind that is something that we’re all just trying to figure out. Music for me is a vehicle to search for that truth. And that truth is like a street with many avenues.”

Liberated from the strict protocol of prewritten arrangements, the members of Thing were free to explore and to communicate impromptu, listening to what the others in the band were playing and reacting to it instantly, complementing each other’s expressions in a seamless tapestry of sound rather than trying to compete with each other for the star spotlight.

“Most conversations consist of one person talking and other people listening for the first thing they can disagree with,” Cheatham offers. “In jazz the goal is to find the things that you agree with and celebrate them.”

***

“When we were done with the Thing album, I took the tapes to Columbia and the local A&R guy there,” Cheatham says. “He slams those reels onto a tape player, puts on some phones and he’s listening. He’s listening and nodding, and I’m thinking ‘This is a great sign!’

“Then he takes the phones off and he says ‘It’s good. I can’t do a thing with it.’”

The A&R executive said that all the money was tied up into promoting blues rocker Edgar Winter’s White Trash album, which had been released the previous year. But there was another concern as well.

Cheatham: “He says, ‘You’re sounding really close to Miles here. How’re we gonna work that out?’”

There’s no denying that Cheatham had taken some inspiration from Miles Davis—as had virtually other progressive or commercial jazz musician at the dawn of the 1970s. Davis was in the midst of his revolutionary cycle of albums starting in the mid-sixties when he launched his exploration for a nexus between jazz and rock, helping to birth the subgenre that would be dubbed jazz fusion. However, Cheatham maintains that he was not merely aping Davis, but following his own primal instincts as a musician.

“When I was with playing with the Chetniks, we were a blend of rhythm and blues, soul, rock & roll and jazz. We played it all together: I was already sort of in that kind of mind frame when I got back from the military. So when I heard what Miles was doing, experimenting with playing all these difference styles together, it had a lot of resonance with me.

“When I first came to Boston,  I did gigs like backing up [tap dancer] Jimmy Slyde, and a lot of other R&B gigs. But that was my background from Chicago… We did jazz gigs, and we did rock & roll. Whatever was being looked for, we played it.

“So I took the Thing tapes back and decided we have to release it ourselves.” Thing was issued later in 1972 on the Innerview Records imprint.

***

Cheatham continued to perform as a leader in Boston’s jazz community throughout the ensuing decades after the release of Thing, but found a new musical passion outside of the bandstand: passing the magic of communication through jazz on to the next generation.

“I was still playing with various groups,” Cheatham says, “but I looked around and said, ‘Well, I don’t have a j-o-b.’ So I said, let me see… what would I like to be doing?

And I decided to create programs for children both to introduce them to jazz and to introduce them to some American heroes they didn’t know about, the

Coltranes, the Charlie Parkers… I wanted to bring that awareness into a school setting.”

Cheatham created JazzED, a program that staged musical presentations for students ranging from preschool to junior high. Some programs were one-shot concerts by Cheatham’s Search combo. Many other programs were eight-week or full-semester programs where Cheatham would teach along with other musicians and artists. For the next 13 years, JazzED traveled to schools all over the six-state New England area, including schools for the deaf.

 

“People said: ‘Wait a minute… you’re going to a school for the deaf to play music?’” Cheatham laughs. “Well, first of all: Not everybody there is stone deaf. They have different decibel levels to which they can hear. Second: they can still feel the vibrations. If you put somebody up by the drums, and I’d bring a baritone sax with me, have someone stick their hand down the baritone while I play. Or we’d run the music through an oscilloscope so they can see the shape of the sound. Afterwards one of the teachers came up to me, pointed at the scope and said ’How did you think of that?’ We used the oscilloscope with many of the kids. We talked and they’d see the shape of the sound and then they’d practice sounding until they match the shapes we make.”

JazzED also played a crucial role in healing a Boston landscape driven by racial resentment and explosions of intense violence by the state’s mandatory desegregation of public schools starting in 1974.

As Cheatham recalls: “The Boston school desegregation effort came along around that time. They were hiring artists to sort of be a buffer zone in the midst of all the hostility that was going on, to sort of introduce something new to the schools, to introduce a different kind of person to schools… to open people’s eyes.

“So I did a lot of jazz programs with schools. I would write the proposals during the summertime, in the fall I’d submit and hit the classrooms. We went into some classrooms that had never had someone like me in there, there was so much tension between the various groups.

“But here’s an illustration of why we felt we had to do it: Mark [Harvey] and I were teaching. We went to the Martin Luther King School in [the primarily African-American neighborhood] Roxbury. The windows were bolted shut in the summertime and the heat was horrible. We tried to find a working electrical outlet to plug in an amplifier. There was one. One socket that was working! The kids came in and did the best that they could in the sweltering heat, and we got through the program.

“Same day, that afternoon we go to a school in Acton, Mass [an upper-middleclass, predominantly white suburb]. They had a brand new auditorium, microphones already set up for us. Mixing desk with a cat taping. Every conceivable amenity that one could wish for was there. And that really was the heart of the discrepancy: This is what we’re fighting over. How can you have this over here and that over there, and claim that it’s equal opportunity for these children? When we get out of here, which ones are going to be better prepared to function in the world we live in today?

“At the end of the second year I was at a school in East Boston… At the end of it, all the other kids left and this one young woman stayed behind. She came up to me and gave me a little card, like a Valentine’s card. And she left. I opened up the card and it said. ‘Dear Arni, I really liked the jazz class. Even though you’re a black man, I really had a fun time.’

“Think about that… that girl had been preconditioned to expect that this was going to be a really bad experience, that she wasn’t going to like it because I was black. And I was able to change her attitude. That made everything I had done worthwhile.”

***

Today, Arni Cheatham remains an active player in Boston jazz. In the years since the Thing LP, he has played on numerous recordings with the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, performs regularly with the Makanda Project, and has released two more records under his own name: 1985’s Romantha Rumination and Telacoustic, from 2017. He has returned his focus to his first love, photography, and while the JazzED program ended in 1985, Cheatham has remained committed to the mission of educating the coming generations through and about the music called jazz. Through it all, though, his most avid student has consistently been himself—that boy from Chicago who many years ago left his “respectable” job because he wanted to do more, to see more, to learn more.

“Everybody, if they’re serious, has got something to say,” he opines. “And the joy of my existence is waking up knowing that I have the opportunity to learn something new today… Some idea, whether it’s something I read, something I heard, something I discovered, something someone else did, there are things you can learn every day if your eyes, mind and heart are open.

“I think it would be a sad day if you woke up and said ‘I know it all now’…. I wouldn’t believe you anyway, but it would be sad. There’s always something I’m trying to figure out. And music is my natural language for understanding the world.”

-Uchenna Ikonne, July 2018


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