The Chesser Cats battle seniors’ loneliness and isolation through the uplifting power of music

By Dave Carew

For many of us, the most amazing, healing, and transcendent music is the music we loved as children and youth. That’s the simple-yet-powerful idea behind The Chesser Cats, a group of local musicians who bring classic, beloved 1930s and 1940s live jazz music directly to local nursing homes, assisted living communities, VA hospitals, and special care centers. In this way, The Chesser Cats have embarked on a (pardon the pun) concerted effort to fight loneliness and isolation among our aging friends and neighbors.

Fronted by popular local attorney and former Tenessee State Senate candidate James Chesser, The Chesser Cats are, for seniors, the next-best-thing to having the ghost of Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington or Cole Porter drop by your living facility and play you a collection of classics.  As revealed in the following exclusive interview with James Chesser, the results can be nothing short of spectacular.

UNDERGROUND NASHVILLE: In your view, what is the prime purpose of The Chesser Cats?

JAMES CHESSER:   I have sometimes thought that in Western culture the only difference between used tires and old people is that used tires bounce when you throw them away.  We want to confront the chronic problem of isolation and loneliness of seniors in a fresh, effective way.

UN:  How do you do that?

JC: Firstly, we seek to build goodwill and friendships with seniors by performing quality jazz music from the 1930s and 40s directly at their residence, whether that be a nursing home or assisted living community, VA hospital, or special care center.   There are some wonderful, but very isolated seniors living amongst us here in Nashville that we never get to meet.   The Chesser Cats focus on being their neighbors, not simply their entertainers, and visiting their community/nursing homes with a welcome gift: the music they were young to, and to which they fell in love.

We use arrangements from the American masters they once enjoyed—Ellington, Gershwin, Goodman, Mercer etc.—whose works today are too seldom played.   The effects are amazing!   [The seniors] laugh, cry, dance, sing—even some of the very sick, and ones who can scarcely talk or walk.

UN: What kind of support are you hoping to get from the local community and various civic organizations?

JC: We ask the local community to join us by standing up for the seniors.    To our friends in gregarious civic organizations such as Lions, Elks, and Rotary Clubs, we say, come on out with us for an hour on Saturday afternoon and meet seniors in a light-hearted way.   You can bring children, friends, or out-of-town guests, and enjoy an hour of American jazz treasures without charge; and in the process you’ll get to know some extraordinary folks who could always use more smiles, singing, and dancing in their lives.  To our musician friends who are experienced in performing or arranging jazz in the 1930s/40s style, we say, sit in with us.     And to those who can neither attend nor perform, we ask them to consider supporting any one of several Foundations which are actively involved in serving the seniors on a grass-roots level, such as ours.   These concerts have out-of-pocket expenses associated with them that, while modest in nature, should not consistently be placed on the backs of local working musicians.

UN: What philosophy drives The Chesser Cats’ approach to performance for seniors?

JC:  Our philosophy is simple:  If seniors can’t go to the community, then the community can go to them.   We’re coming with great, timeless music—our national treasure.   But we’re also coming with community—not the type that involves government organizations and taxes, but the type that involves real neighbors who support seniors through kind hearts and local participation.

UN: What particularly sensitized you to the need The Chesser Cats is designed to meet?

JC: The five other musicians I perform with in The Chesser Cats—Roger Parker, Al Cheatham, Duane Kilby, Jon Tapp, and Bob Ervin—are not only accomplished jazz players but, more importantly, men with great hearts for community service.   It is rare to find such an extraordinary group of individuals with whom to perform, and it is primarily the energy and commitment of this ensemble that has awakened my interest in confronting senior isolation locally.

In addition to working with inspiring musicians, I am also moved continually by the seniors themselves.   Prior to the formation of the Cats, I had the opportunity to visit a number of senior communities within our county as part of a state [Senate] election campaign.    I was impressed to meet so many patriotic and colorful personalities, who certainly asked some profound and disturbing questions about our political system, and our advancement as a nation.  By degrees I became keenly aware that it was our loss, and our shame, that we did not make more of an effort to know our senior residents.   Too often they were left isolated, sick, and forgotten by the community.

Nashville will inevitably need to acknowledge the problem of senior isolation, as our nursing homes, hospitals and assisted living communities are beginning to overflow with older residents.   Yet for the moment there remain those who steadfastly believe in the status quo, and that seniors have no real challenges that the mainstream population doesn’t already face.    I am proud to be with those who disagree, and who are willing to put our time, talents, and energy into that debate.    We ask others to join us by supporting our experiment within the next year, and by helping us forge links with complementary organizations such as the [Nashville] Jazz Workshop, civic groups, and local foundations.  Our performances will be ever improving, but it is not music that most inspires us.  We are most encouraged by others who stand with us, and who help us support the seniors in an uniquely American way.

To learn more about The Chesser Cats, please visit Facebook under “Chesser Cats” or write to

David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter.” He also is a freelance book editor, publicist, and advertising/marketing/public relations writer.




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