Jim Cullum Jr., jazz bandleader and cornetist, dies at 77
Longtime San Antonio cornetist and jazz bandleader Jim Cullum, Jr. died Sunday of an apparent heart attack. He was 77 years old.
He spoke to David Martin Davies of TPR in 2009. He said his early days playing cornet were pretty laid back.
“Go to school, chase the girls for a bit and play the cornet,” he joked. “It was, doing a minimum of homework, and that’s kind of what my life was like. I was a kid. [Of course,] you come out of those things; you have to get more serious.”
And he got more serious when he went to community college and then transferred to Trinity University.
“Music was a primary motivation for me,” Cullum explained. “I always wanted to be involved in music.”
In 1963, he and his father, clarinetist Jim Cullum Sr., brought their new live music jazz club to the river level of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and named it The Landing – one of the first ventures on the Riverwalk.
Cullum was delighted. “Oh my God, it was one of the most fabulous things you could imagine,” he recalled. “Here we are – a real audience, in this smart place, and the band was playing!”
An investor in the original Landing club suggested that Cullum’s performances on Saturday nights be aired on the radio.
Cullum agreed. “And we started broadcasting on the KITY radio station,” he said. Cullum’s Happy Jazz Band later switched to WOAI AM, a 50,000 watt powerhouse, which greatly increased the band’s popularity.
One night, Joe Gwathmey, who founded San Antonio’s public radio station KSTX, visited The Landing and met Cullum.
“And I said, ‘Do I have an idea for you?'” Cullum explained. “So a few days later I was on Texas Public Radio.”
In 1989, Cullum began taping a weekly live hour-long show called “Riverwalk: Live From The Landing”, which was later named “Riverwalk Jazz”. The program steadily grew in popularity and eventually aired on approximately 200 radio stations in the United States and around the world.
The program ran until 2012, featuring luminaries like Lionel Hampton, Norma Teagarden and Clark Terry.
Baylee Badawy of the New Orleans Jazz Museum said Cullum was an early supporter of their jazz promotion efforts.
“The Happy Jazz Band has performed several concerts with the New Orleans Jazz Club,” Badawy explained. “He really gave the world the gift of New Orleans and traditional New Orleans jazz music. We are so grateful for all of his recordings and his work with, of course, Stanford University.”
Stanford acquired the archives and made the broadcasts available on a dedicated website.
Cullum later renamed his jazz band after himself, and they continued to play the music of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, and other famous Great American Songbook artists.
They played mostly locally, but occasionally gigs brought them to foreign audiences, including venues in Mexico and Russia.
Cullum sold The Landing in 2009 and “Riverwalk Jazz” ended in 2012.
The program was over but Cullum’s performances were not. His five-piece band grew with guest musicians, depending on the gig and venue, and he maintained a busy performance schedule.
Doc Watkins, musician and owner of the Jazz, Texas club, said Cullum helped him and many other San Antonio musicians. He put them to work.
“I’ve done dozens of gigs at The Landing…cutting my teeth as a jazz musician here,” Watkins said. “So, yeah, I owe Jim a huge debt of gratitude.”
Watkins said Cullum made a major contribution to jazz. He put San Antonio on the music map.
“When I think of Jim and his legacy and San Antonio, it’s like Willie Nelson and Austin [or] Stevie Ray Vaughan or one of these figures. …Jim’s Legacy [is] will never fade,” he explained.
Benefits are pending.
In a 2017 interview, TPR asked Cullum if jazz audiences have changed since 1963 or if they’ve stayed the same.
“I don’t think they’re any different,” Cullum said. “You have people who really love the music, people who are just for blowing themselves up, and people for other reasons that we can’t talk about on the radio!”
Nathan Cone, TPR Vice President for Culture and Community Engagement, contributed to this report.
Jack Morgan can be reached at Jack@TPR.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii.