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WM: Jazzed to Return

John Cheek ’91 was career-focused after graduation, and as a result, a beloved passion was left to collect dust. After a 15-year-intermission, the jazz player’s spark was reignited.

it started in sixth grade, when John Cheek’s mother convinced her son to join the middle school band.

“She played trumpet and suggested I give it a try,” says the Crawfordsville native. “I picked it up and could barely make any noise out of the instrument for a couple days. And then, by the third day, something clicked and suddenly I could play—I could actually play. 

“I didn’t know what to do with my fingers,” Cheek recalls, “but I was playing, and the sound coming out was pretty good.” 

Music has greatly influenced Cheek’s life. During his middle school years, he remembers comparing himself to a popular Saturday-morning cartoon character from the 1960s. 

“Baby Huey was this giant, naive duck that acted like a little child. He was always getting picked on. He was so much bigger than everyone else,” says Cheek. “That was me. I’m 6'6", and was always the biggest kid in my class. I was shy and quiet. I was a good student and stayed out of trouble, but I felt out of place.” 

Those feelings began to fade once he got to high school. At the conclusion of marching band his freshman year at North Montgomery, Cheek participated in a blind audition to join the concert band and ended up in the first-trumpet section. 

“I beat out a couple of seniors and it was like the shot heard around the world. I thought that one of the guys I beat was going to kill me. He wasn’t bigger than me, but he was definitely meaner,” Cheek says and laughs. 

“Suddenly I became this star, and it gave me all the confidence in the world.” 

That experience was the defining moment for Cheek and one that set him off on a successful leadership path in school and life. 

While studying mathematics at Wabash, Cheek played trumpet in every band in the music department, joined pep band, and was the department assistant for three years beginning as a sophomore.

Cheek was first introduced to jazz by John Alston, visiting assistant professor of music. Alston was a “very accomplished jazz piano player” on the Wabash faculty in 1988, and directed the College’s concert and jazz bands and chamber orchestra until 1990, when he joined the faculty at Swarthmore College. 

Under Alston’s leadership, Cheek and a couple of his classmates created a jazz quintet on campus called The Bobtet. The group was popular for playing ’50s bebop-style music. 

“It wasn’t a formal band program, but it was special and something [Alston] put together after class to teach us more about jazz improvisation and how to play,” says Cheek. “Being a part of that group really inspired me to want to be a better jazz musician.” 

Jonathan Burke ’92 met Cheek his first semester living in Martindale Hall. Cheek was jumping around housing units trying to recruit students to join the various bands. 

“I played trumpet as well, so when we realized we both shared that interest, we became close friends,” says Burke, who would go on to pledge Delta Tau Delta with Cheek. 

“Most students in band were just noodling around and playing our instruments like we did in high school, but John took advantage of his resources and grew as a musician. 

“He was learning how to improvise in jazz, and while that sounds easy, like, ‘Oh, you just pick up the instrument and play something,’ it’s definitely not like that at all. It’s tough. You’re playing with a group, within a song, within a chord structure. You can’t just play anything. You have to play something that works with all of that,” Burke continued. “It’s very mathematical, and John’s got a very mathematic mind. He grew significantly in his playing ability and understanding of music.” 

cheekstarted out studying physics at Wabash, but by the end of his freshman year he realized the major wasn’t for him and was “lured over to the math department” by his faculty advisor, the late mathematics professor Robert “Bob” Cooley H’77. When Cooley later encouraged Cheek to consider law school—and a career in intellectual property (IP) in particular—Cheek’s focus shifted solely to the profession.

“The horn went into the case and that was it,” says Cheek. “Life and work went on.”

Cheek is a brass instrument collector, and finds joy in playing his B flat trumpet, an old 1960s cornet, and flügelhorn. 

“If we all play our parts correctly, whether it’s in band or in a company, at the end of the day, people will stand up and cheer for us.”

After earning his JD from the University of Dayton School of Law in 1994, Cheek began his career in private practice in Dayton, Ohio. He worked as an IP attorney for Dybvig & Dybvig, and provided patent, trademark, and copyright services to small, medium, and Fortune 500 clients. 

“It was a small law firm in town and a great place to get started in my career,” says Cheek. “It had a lot of the same characteristics as Wabash. It was about the learning and doing it right, and not so much about the almighty billable hours. I certainly wasn’t making as much money as a lot of my classmates, but I was learning about how to be a good lawyer. That experience was invaluable.” 

In 1997, Cheek joined heavy machinery icon Caterpillar as an IP attorney. Over the next 20 years, he held multiple roles at the company, including managing IP attorney for Europe and chief counsel of innovation and strategy. 

Cheek met a colleague who played piano and the two decided to jam. 

“It didn’t sound the best, after all of those years of not playing,” says Cheek, “but it was fun. 

“In 2007, Caterpillar hired a patent attorney who was a professional jazz pianist. He’s just phenomenal,” Cheek continues. “At that point, I got inspired to really start playing again. I started listening to music more, got my trumpet restored, and was doing a lot of practicing at home.” 

Cheewould go on to play as a regular in various local bands and combos in Peoria, Illinois, until he moved to Michigan in 2017 to join Tenneco, an automotive equipment manufacturer, as its chief IP counsel. 

There, he connected with a local drummer in Ann Arbor, and joined the Saline Big Band as its lead trumpet player. 

“We did a lot of concerts around town, joint events with some of the big professional bands in the Detroit area,” says Cheek. “It was all good, and super fun, and then COVID came crashing down on us. The band hasn’t been together since late February 2020.” 

But that hasn’t stopped the music from echoing through his Bloomfield Hills home. In late 2021, Cheek did a digital music project with about 50 other intellectual property lawyers from around the world who are also musicians. 

“People from Singapore, South Africa, Europe, the U.S., and all over the world went to their own little studios at home and recorded their part of a song,” explains Cheek. “We all submitted our video and it was edited into one production. It turned into this great music video of all of us performing an original song. It was so cool to see and have that feeling of normalcy again. Even though we’re all separated because of the pandemic, it felt good to be able to come together again and share that experience. 

“Music is a big part of my life. My golf game has gone to hell because I only have time for one-and-a-half hobbies—trumpet became my one, and golf became the half,” Cheek says with a laugh. 

“I’m thankful I picked it back up, and am proud of the progress I’ve made. I’ll keep playing at home, and keep my eye out for when and where I am going to play next once the pandemic settles down.”