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How Don Cheadle Wrote The Theme Song To His "The Fresh Prince" Spin-Off

In this "A List" discussion, Don Cheadle sits down with The Black List's Franklin Leonard to talk about his favorite jazz solos of all time. From Miles Davis' "Summertime" to Jaco Pastorius' "Portraits of Tracy," the actor breaks down what those solos meant to him and how it influenced his life and career. Don also opens up about choosing acting over music, almost getting his own "Fresh Prince" spin-off and what he hopes to see for his future. SAG-AFTRA members are currently on strike; as part of the strike, union actors are not promoting their film and TV projects. This interview was conducted prior to the strike. Director: Alice Park Director of Photography: Matt Krueger Editor: Katie Wolford; Matt Colby Host: Franklin Leonard Producer: Juliet Lopez, Funmi Sunmonu Line Producer: Romeeka Powell Associate Producer: Emebeit Beyene Production Manager: Andressa Pelachi and Kevin Balash Production Coordinator: Kariesha Kidd Director, Video Talent : Lauren Mendoza Camera Operator: Shay Eberle-Gunst and Oliver Lukacs Sound : Kara Johnson Production Assistant: Fernando Barajas and Mike Kritzell Set Designer: Morgan Roberts Post Production Supervisor: Edward Taylor Post Production Coordinator: Jovan James Supervising Editor: Kameron Key Assistant Editor: Billy Ward

Released on 08/10/2023


How old are you?

Why, you wanna do the Kevin Hart thing?

I'm trying, Kevin did it, I thought maybe I could do it.

Do you wanna try again?

I-- Can we get

a take two? I don't--

On this? I think.

No let's try again. I think we can move on.

[light music]

I'm Franklin Leonard and this is A List.

Today's guest is Don Cheadle.

My man.

[Don cooing]

All right, I have to start with an apology.

I like it.

So the thing about this show

is that I ask people for a list,

I use that list because I have a personal interest

in the subject, in this case jazz solos.

I'm a jazz fan, not terribly musically gifted.

You however grew up playing jazz,

have said that playing jazz gives you more joy than acting

which you've been doing for a while now.

So I'm wrenching that into you giving me a list

of your favorite jazz solos

so I can have somebody who knows a lot

tell me someone who does not what I should be listening to.

I don't know that I know a lot.


I know what I like

which I don't put on any sort of sliding scale

that's being better or worse

than-- I think that's

a wise approach.

I understand my tastes and I like them.

And they're very eclectic and very and I listen

to a lot a lot of different music.

And inside of what people would call the jazz realm.

You wanna just start with one of them though?

Where should we start?

[Don] Let's start foundationally.


Most people when they think of jazz

and what's synonymous with jazz

they obviously think of Miles.

So maybe Miles solo on Porgy and Bess, Summertime.

I mean.

Miles Davis [Don mumbling].

[Summertime by Miles Davis playing]

Why that one specifically?

Well it's foundational to me

because it was one of the first albums

that I ever recall listening to

because it was my parents collection, it was one

of their album collections. Okay.

And it was one of the albums

that I actually when I went to college I took

and. Oh wow.

And I stole it.

I was gonna say, did they give,

did they know that you had taken it

or? Once I told them

once I was already gone.

Did you ever

just call and said-- I said, Oh by the way.

So you grew up in a jazz house then?

I wouldn't say that, I grew up in my parents,

that was one of the styles of music that they listened to.

So there was Cannonball Adderley in the collection,

there was Miles Davis in the collection,

there was Sarah Vaughn in the collection,

Carmen McRae, there was a lot of just a lot of

the real standard bearers

of the art form. And this was what

was playing though at home?

Yeah. 'Cause like my house

was like a mo town house specifically.

It was a Motown house too.


But I think it was what I played more

and it was what I was really drawn to

more than anything else.

And I started playing sax in elementary school.

It was one of the things that you could do in school

was like, Do you wanna play an instrument?

I was like, Yeah I'll play that,

What do you wanna play?


It was a very it was a lark, it wasn't really.

It wasn't like this was what's playing at home

so I'm choose it. No.

I kind of found it after.

Okay. I started playing the sax.

When did the acting start?

Kind of in elementary school.

I had an elementary school teacher

who really was the music teach,

not the music teacher, not the instrumental music teacher.


I started singing then in the choirs,

and started doing plays there.

I was famously Templeton the rat in Charlotte's Web.

I know you've.

I've done the research. I know you know that

and you've saw the awards and you saw the write ups.

It is a legendary performance.

I'm glad you said it, I didn't wanna have to say it.

So that was when that really started.

And then all through junior high school

it was just music, there was no.

[Franklin] Right.

Acting program to speak of.

And then in high school it all sort of came back together.

And you've talked about sort of

letting jazz go as a professional pursuit,

but the love of the thing persisted.

Yeah I knew that I was-- How did

that decision happen?

Like how does one say at the end of high school

like, Well I'm really good at this thing,

I'm also maybe really good at this thing,

but I'm gonna do this one not this one.

Because the one I didn't do was infinitely harder

than the one that I was going to do.

I grew up with real jazz musicians

that are like went on to have careers,

Ron Miles, Javon Jackson, people that really were about it.

I saw what it took to do that

and I realized that I was not going to shed.

I'm like, I'm not going to be sitting in a room

for eight hours studying theory

and doing soul fashion and running scales.

And you're gonna have to be able to do that,

and also it's not a chore to them,

do you know what I mean?


They have to be talked into doing other things.

It's like, No you have to go outside

and put the piano away for a minute,

you have to stop playing right now.

That's how they approach music.

For me it was always a grind.

[smooth music]

Let's jump to another solo.

Another solo, where should we go now?

Let's listen to Oscar Peterson's solo.

Let's listen to it.

Let's listen to some Oscar Peterson.

'Cause this one's ridiculous.

[Tour's End by Oscar Peterson playing]

So what is it about this solo?

It's emblematic of his style clearly, very rhythmic,

and no matter how fast he plays it's always melodic,

the structure of it, it makes sense,

it's a story, it feels like it's story telling,

it's not just pyrotechnics.

I feel anyway that it's very, it makes sense,

it's very logical within the framework of the song.

So what's so interesting to me too about jazz

is it is definite, like you're not just playing

the notes on the sheet music.

There is an incredible amount of preparation

and just like hardcore musical knowledge that goes into it,

but on a day they're improvise,

they're doing something different.

And that's the part that my brain can't process that.

I couldn't either.

I understood it in a very basic way

and I dipped my toe in it, and I of course had to improv,

I was in jazz bands and all through

high school and everything. Good.

But I knew there was another level to what they were doing

and the language that they were able to speak

that I wasn't able to do.

Or I was intimidated in many ways by that,

by theory, by scales, by music.

A lot of it's math.


So if you could make that connection

you could probably be very good at that

because you understand what a minor key is,

what a major key is, what Dorian is, what Lydian is,

what makes it Lydian is,

why those intervals are what they are.

But it feels almost specific to jazz.

I think it is,

I think it's as complicated and structured and elevated

as classical music.

But that's the most all the way back

to the first thing you said.


I feel the most engaged and alive when that's happening

because there's no planning,

because you don't know what's gonna happen.

[Franklin] Right.

Because it forces you to listen

and be present and in the moment

almost more than any other thing

I've ever, except parenting.

[Franklin laughs]

But what's wild when I hear you talk about that

is I feel like a lot of actors

talk about their craft of acting in a similar way.

Now there's no like scales and theory necessarily

in the same way,

but again a lot of it is prep prep prep prep prep

but on the day-- Gotta be in the moment.

You gotta be in the moment, you gotta be in the pocket,

you're listening to what other people are doing

and you're responding.

I'm curious how your acting education

and your sort of early in your career,

was there overlap in sort of how you thought about that

or were they completely divorced in your mind?

I think I felt it sort of like kinesthetically.

I understood that there is within the framework of the words

and within the framework of the text, and the play,

and those are the words.

Right. That's what you're saying.

But moment to moment,

how you might engage with another person

is only dictated by what's happening

in the moment. Right.

And if you get something different,

the way you're coming back at them is different.

And a really really smart acting teacher said to me,

and I think it's really true,

that you're only ever trying to do one of three things

when you're engaging in a scene with somebody,

you're trying to make them feel something,

make them understand something, or make them do something.

And sometimes it's a combination of those.

But anything else is just you're not really acting,

you're not really-- Right.

Trying to get your goals,

and you're trying to always go after your goal as an actor,

and there's different ways to get that goal.

And there's different outcomes

you're trying to get to musically too

when you're improving.

But it's about being in the moment, being present,

listening, responding, reacting,

all those things correlate to me.

So I'm getting my notes 'cause I wanna go through a list

of some of your early credits.

So you started working basically as a working actor

while you were at Cal [Franklin mumbling] correct?

So Colors, Meteor Man,

[Don laughs]

Fame, LA Law Hill Street Blues,

Night Court, Booker, China Beach,

the Golden Girls spinoff Golden Palace

with the Golden Girls and Cheech Marin.


And famously Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

[woman in orange mumbling] We didn't hear you come in.

Jeffrey did you leave the door open?

Well no.

[audience laughs]

Well then I guess we must've left it unlocked.

Well no.

[audience laughs]

They were gonna give you a spinoff to Fresh Prince.

Yeah they did, I shot a pilot.

Where is that pilot now?

I think you can actually find it

online. Is it online?

I just some it popped up

and I was like, Oh wow here's the pilot.

And you also wrote the music for the intro,

is that true?


[Franklin] Tell me more.

Well at that point I was doing a lot in studios,

I thought I was going through,

again I was never completely dropped the idea of music,

it was always-- Right.

In the sidecar.

And I wanted to take a crack at the theme song.

They're like, Go ahead.

[upbeat music]

♪ Some folks they say there's only one way ♪

♪ To live your life live your life ♪

So I set off in my producing friend Kenny Finch

wrote the theme song, and it's the one,

I don't know that ultimately we would've used it,

[Don laughs]

But that is

the theme song that-- But it's the one

you hear in the show

and you hear me singing. All of the--

I'm singing and you hear it yeah.

[smooth music]

So Devil in a Blue Dress

was probably a turning point I feel like career-wise,

because you were all anyone was talking about

coming outta that movie.

I mean the movie was incredible.

Didn't realize you had also worked

with Carl Franklin prior.

Was it his thesis film?


So his AFI thesis starred Don Cheadle.

Which is why I almost didn't get Devil in a Blue Dress.

What do you mean?

Well because Carl sort of had cemented in his mind

that I was that.

[Franklin] Kid.

19-year-old kid that he-- Right.

Had worked with and he never saw me

as a dude that could ever be Denzel's contemporary.


And Denzel's 10 years older than me,

so he's like it's just not going to work.

And then Denzel's like, Well I'll age down five years

you'll age him up five years

and then we'll be contemporary's, it's not a big deal.

So Denzel had to convince Carl.

I mean we could do a whole thing

on how it actually came together.

Okay. Which is how

a lot of my career's come together.

And one of these songs which is Personal Mountains

also plays a part in this.

You wanna, should we listen

to that? Yeah let's listen

to that now.

Personal Mountains, Keith Jarrett.

[Personal Mountains by Keith Jarrett playing]

Explain what you mean

how this all ties to-- I'll try to do it

really fast but it's hard. Okay.

'Cause it's a very long story.

My agent read the book,

said, This is you, you've gotta get in on it.

Everybody in the town and all over the country

was going in on this part.

Right. Running their mouths.

I couldn't get an audition.

She's like, Doesn't make any sense, you know Carl,

you did the movie together.

Why isn't he calling?

I said, Well he knows me, if he thinks I'm right for it

then he'll call me.

The day that I heard that it was coming

I had started listening to this album

and something just made sense.

Again I can't tell you why, I don't know why,

it's some cosmic esoteric whatever,

that the Personal Mountains made sense.

This would be a personal mountain for me

if I climb this mountain.

And I know it's gonna be life changing

if this happens for me,

I know it's going to change everything,

but I don't have to go out for it,

I don't have to go to it,

all I'm supposed to do is my work,

all I'm supposed to do is focus on me

and it's gonna come to me if it's meant to come to me.

I'm not chasing it.

And I listened to this track,

this is the only piece of music I listened to

for months, literally it's all I listened to.

So months went by, months went by,

couldn't get an audition, couldn't get an audition.

She's like, You gotta call,

I'm like, I'm not calling him.

If he-- And that's a long,

I mean they were going

to everybody then. Months, everybody.

So I was in a ear nose and throat doctors reception area.

[Don laughs]

Not where I thought this story was going but.

You can't.


You could never anticipate it.

And the room got very very crowded,

and I kept moving further and further toward the door

as more people came in.

And the door opens and bangs into me and it's Carl.

And this two seconds after he walks into the room

the receptionist came out and said,

There's too many people in this room,

who was the last one in here?

And she pointed at Carl and me and she goes,

You two, go in that room.

[Franklin laughs]

Yeah that is the universe.

And the two of us went in a room by ourselves

and just caught up on old times,

what's going on, what's going on.

He said, You know I'm doing this movie.

I was like, Yeah I've heard about the movie.

[Franklin laughs]

And he just dropped it,

and we went on and talked about other stuff.

And then the next day my agent called

and said, I don't know what happened

but he wants to see you.

I was like yeah of course.

Hotel Rwanda obviously Academy Award nominated for it.

Paul obviously just got released from detention.

What is that like for you as an actor who played him?

Like it's gotta br surreal having played a real life figure

and then to have him be detained.

Talk to me about that.

Well the experience was one thing,

and what it did for my career was one thing,

but what dwarfed that in many ways

is what it triggered as far as me binge an activist

and learning about what was happening

and being pulled into this stream of activism

that was already happening before I got there.

But sort of being pushed to the front of it,

like oh finally we have a mouthpiece.

What was that like though?

It's learning like oh this is how I can be a,

this is my function in this space.

And I was like oh this is how that works,

when I show up to this thing people can rally around that

and I'm not the expert on this,

I'm someone who's learning as I go along,

but the fact that I'm doing it

while people are putting a camera in front of me,

and putting a microphone in front of me

allows me to throw that focus on them.

And the day he was kidnapped,

let's just call it what it is,

I was on calls to the state department and the White House,

and I was trying to find ways to get him out.

With his family and other people

that were working-- Yeah of course.

On his behalf too.

But again it's like yeah step up.

And you stepped up I feel like in other ways too

I mean your Saturday Night Live appearance,

which was a subtle, just the tee shirt.

But I mean how do you think about using those moments?

Is it just like what this is a moment

where the cameras are on me,

I should make sure they're on somebody else too or?

Basically yeah, but I never expected

to be in this position.

I wanted to act because I thought it was fun

and it was interesting and I wanted to get girls.

But I really was scratching an itch

and something that was really interesting to me.

I never thought that it would be beneficial to other people

and help bring things to the fore

that were struggling to be brought to the fore.

So that's how it's important to me to use it.

If it was just trying to get to the front of the line

and get best seats at a restaurant,

or free tickets to a game, or free swag,

then it's like that's not why to have the light,

to have the light is to use the light.

So let's talk about Secret Invasion.

Wonderful, it's out yeah.

Dope right? Let's talk about superheroes

for a minute.


I'm just curious what it's like to prepare for a role

where your job is literally saving the world.

I'm-- Steroids.

Obviously talking about Captain Planet.

[lively music]

[Captain Planet] With your powers combined

I am Captain Planet.

Go planet!

Well planet-eers, what seems to be the problem?

Oh no steroids on that, that was all in the suit,

it was all padded.

You notoriously engaged in blue face for that role.


So what? Do you wanna apologize

to the people of Pandora? I don't care.


I'll do it again.

Do we think that the people,

that Pandoran's are blue because of Captain Planet?

I don't care about why they're blue,

I'm not into Pandoran rights, I'll do it again, dare me.

Cancellation incoming.

Keep it blue.

Okay but seriously,

on Secret Invasion this blew my mind,

I feel like you and Samuel L. Jackson

have been working for as long as I have been

aware of actors-- Okay take it easy.

[Don laughs]

Calm down.

How old are you again? You're not that much

younger than me.

How old are you?

Why, does it matter?

Do you wanna do the Kevin Hart thing?

I'm trying.

Okay go again.

How old are you?

You know, right now I'm 57-years-old.


I'm not.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

Kevin did it, I thought maybe I could do it.

It wasn't that good, do you wanna try again?

I-- Can we get

a take two on this? I don't I think.

No let's try again. I think we can move on.

No I think

we should try again. I think we should move on.

I wanna talk about Sam Jackson.

All right, we'll move on.

All right, this is the time y'all have acted together.

How is that possible?

I don't know, we've complained about it

to the Marvel people every movie like.

I mean separate from the Marvel people,

like it just blew, like I literally,

I could not believe it when I saw that that was true.

I went on Google trying to disprove it

like a idiot. No it's the truth.

I think it's his fault personally,

if I'm gonna lay blame at somebody's feet.

I think he was scared.

I mean it wouldn't be the first one.


Facts as the kids say.

But how was the experience?


Actually it was great.

Sam and I have

been friends for many years. Thank you.

We golf together, I've seen him on stage,

Sam's a great actor, no BS.

We had a great time.

I think no cap is what I'm supposed to say,

no cap. No cap as

the kids would say.

As the kids.

Are the kids even saying that anymore?

I don't even know.

I don't know, they've probably moved on

to something else. I would assume so.

[smooth music]

Having done almost everything

is there anything else you wanna do?

Listen to another track.

Listen to it.

Let's listen to Jaco's Portrait of Tracy

off of the self titled Jaco Pastorius album.

[Portrait of Tracy by Jaco Pastorius playing]

Okay so why Jaco and why this specific Jaco solo?

Because this is the first time for I think a lot of people

that they heard harmonics as music.

Harmonics for a bass player,

for a lotta strings players, guitar players too,

mostly just use to tune the instrument.


And Jaco for him it sounded like music.

He would say, Never just play scales to play scales,

play your scales but always make it musical.


And to hear the invention in that sort of creative mind

of this person who changed and revolutionized

bass playing for everyone, and still,

again that's like foundational.

Well and it's interesting 'cause it sounds like nothing

that had really come before it.

And it wasn't like anything, no one had ever,

I don't believe instead of maybe

there were some circles inside

and people had heard him doing it,

but no one on a grand scale had heard anyone go,

I'm gonna turn all these harmonics into a song.

I mean yeah it's amazing.

So let's talk about the rest of your career.

Again. It's over?

Why do you say like, The rest of it like?

Well I mean the rest continuing on.

[Don sighs]

'Cause that's. It's not over yet.

This interview might-- That sounded

crazy. Do it but.

You should really think about how you frame shit.

The ongoing nature of your career.


I feel like you've done everything.

You've worked with everyone,

you're one of like 50 living people

who have like an EGAD nomination

which puts you in a category

with like Sidney Poitier in Middle Street.

I didn't know that.

You're playing basketball with the president,

and you keep working,

you've been working since you were early 20's late teens.

No one has a bad thing to say about you.

We're gonna change that.

But how?

On a macro sense how?

I know it sounds ridiculous, but like.

I don't know. That is extraordinary.

Is it?

I mean I.

There are not a lot of other Don Cheadle's running around.

I guess there aren't, and I don't know how.

Post facto not even like you couldn't figured out a plan

that would've gotten you here but like

what you-- Right 'cause there's

no plan, you've hit up on it, there is no plan.

You keep your head down, you keep working.

I think I've been very fortunate

that the things that I was drawn to went

and that I've been blessed

and been very right placed right time.

I mean think about that story I told you.

Those kinds of things quite honestly

have happened for me, to me,

over and over and over again.

And I have not tried to orchestrate it,

I've just tried to be very genuine

about the things that I find

that are compelling to me and interesting to me.

And luckily other people find them the same

and they get made.

A lotta people are drawn to things

and attracted to things

and put their energy into things that don't go.

And fighting uphill.

And I've had those, Miles took 10 years to make,

you know so that's like.

And you had to write it, and direct it,

and star in it. And produce it,

and crowdfund for it. And learn the trumpet

for it as I just learned which is crazy.

All that.

I just yeah I think we should put this on the record

'cause I don't know that people realize this.

I knew that you were a jazz musician of some talent,

I did not realize that you learned to play the trumpet

in order to play Miles Davis.

The first time I actually picked up the trumpet

to play it for a role was when I did Rat Pack

and played Sammy Davis Junior.

[Franklin] Okay.

And he played the trumpet, he played the drums,

he did gun twirling, he played the piano,

obviously he sang, he tap danced.

And interestingly enough I was offered that role

very early in the casting process of that movie,

but they never addressed the racism

that Sammy had to deal with.

They never addressed how he was the butt of all the jokes

in the rat pack.

And the scenes were in there

but they never had him reacting to it,

and responding to it, and I said, It has to be there.

You can't just go-- Yeah you can't escape that.

Something has to happen.

So they kept kicking that can down the road,

and so I was like,

well I'm not gonna say yes until it gets addressed.

And then very last minute they said,

How about if we do it like this in this scene,

and we do this.

And I said, How about if on stage after they make the joke

just put a camera behind and let me turn

and let me really show you what the feeling is,

it's even better than writing a scene about it.

Let's see it.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

my name is Sammy Davis Junior.

[Audience Member] Oh boy.

[crowd cheering]

And I would-- Let's hurry up here Sam,

your watermelon's getting warm.

[everyone laughing]

And then he can turn around and put his face back on.

It's pagliacci and he's back performing

and it's all good.

Said, Let's just pull the curtain back and show that.

They're like, Okay we'll do that,

are you gonna do the part?

And I was like, Okay I'll do the part.

Now what I did to myself though

was painted myself into a corner now

'cause I had to learn trumpet,

I had to get tap dancing lessons,

I had to get drum lessons, I had to get,

so I basically just threw myself back in school

which was great.

So it was just-- What's the most

obscure talent that you have borne of your acting career?

I mean gun throwing's gotta be up there.

Sure let's go with that.

All right fair enough.

That I had, because.

You couldn't do it now

if asked. I couldn't do it no.

I'd shoot you-- Fair enough.

Right in the leg.

Are you gonna do an album at some point?

I'd love to do it, I'm not gonna play on it,

but I would just love to curate it.

You're not gonna play on it though?

I'm not gonna play on it.

You don't want me to play on it.

We wanna hear great music. Just like a triangle

like somewhere in the back?

There you go.

I'm just saying

just be on the track. Triangle, triangle.

But yeah, curate just,

I mean I feel like you could just put those calls in,

put people in the studio, and say just Go.

And you have to pay 'em.

You got money.

Get outta my pocket, how much,

what are you talking about?

I don't know, you're in the Avengers franchise,

I'm just assuming.

[smooth music]

That money's spoken for.

Fair enough, you got kids.

And I have four elephants.

These are the stuff people don't know.

Don thank you for coming.

Thank you for having me.

Starring: Don Cheadle