After having played in some of the leading jazz groups from the 1920s on, Cheatham enjoyed renewed acclaim in later decades of his career. He himself agreed with the critical assessment that he was probably the only jazz musician to create his best work after the age of 70.
Cheatham was born in Nashville, Tennessee of African, Cherokee and Choctaw heritage. He noted there was no jazz music there in his youth; like many in the United States he was introduced to the style by early recordings and touring groups at the end of the 1910s. He abandoned his family’s plans for him to be a pharmacist (although retaining the medically inspired nickname “Doc”) to play music, initially playing soprano and tenor saxophone in addition to trumpet in Nashville’s African American Vaudeville theater. Cheatham later toured in band accompanying blues singers on the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. His early jazz influences included Henry Busse and Johnny Dunn, but when he moved to Chicago in 1924 he heard King Oliver. Oliver’s playing was a revelation to Cheatham. Cheatham followed the jazz King around. Oliver gave young Cheatham a mute which Cheatham treasured and performed with for the rest of his career. A further revelation came the following year when Louis Armstrong returned to Chicago. Armstrong would be a lifelong influence on Cheatham.