The late Jim Cullum, Jr. delighted in the poetic sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of his adopted hometown so much so, that after his passing in 2019 at the age of 77, one of the first lines of his obituary described him as “exemplifying the artistic spirit and energy of San Antonio for nearly 60 years.” Though Cullum was best known for his eponymous jazz band, which shared the stage with icons including Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, and Dick Hyman, he also was a savvy businessman (having opened the first nightclub on the San Antonio River Walk – the landmark’s second business – with his father, Jim Cullum, Sr.), and a history buff who worked tirelessly to preserve both pre-World War II jazz and San Antonio’s culture and charm.
“He did a lot in the early years of the River Walk,” said Blanquita Sullivan, one of Cullum’s six children. “When I went through his office [after his death], it was stacks and stacks, year after year, of [files documenting his protection] of the River Walk and the character of the River Walk, trying to keep things like noise ordinances to prevent real loud music to keep that romance and mystery, that quiet on the river; trying to keep chain [businesses] from developing on the river.”
On the Radio
His radio program, “Riverwalk Jazz,” was syndicated on National Public Radio. For 25 years, was broadcast weekly on more than 200 stations. The show is archived at Stanford University Libraries. Sullivan said each show would feature a theme or story, sometimes about a famous jazz artist. “The producer had been involved in ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ since it’s also a radio show, so there was that public radio sound to it,” she said. “There are wonderful performers, amazing musicians, but also actors who would come on and tell these different stories,” along with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
The shows run in chronological order, beginning in 1989, said John Sheridan, who was the band’s pianist off and on since 1979. “We used to do something like ten to twelve shows a year, and we’d do them two at a time; we’d have production weeks and all the guest stars would come in. We had a lot of kicks on the radio show. It was just a great thing. I got to meet an awful lot of jazz legends, Andy LaVerne and Dick Hyman.”
The shows solidified Cullum’s legacy of preserving small band jazz, Sheridan said. “He will always be synonymous with that.”
Sullivan agreed. “That show is the greatest oral history that we have of jazz, not just for the city [of San Antonio], but for the world. It’s a treasure. If he had not worked on that, I think [the music] might have just slipped away.”
‘The Jazz Disease’
James Albert Cullum, Jr. was born on September 20, 1941, to James Cullum, Sr., a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, and Conoly Prendergast Cullum. When Jim Jr. was about twelve years old, the family moved from Dallas to San Antonio, where Jim Sr. started a wholesale grocery business.
“His dad had this humongous collection of 78s: Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, all these great records, and Jim was kind of at a loss because he left all his friends in Dallas and didn’t know anybody, so he just dove into that record collection,” Sheridan said. “He saved up his money and bought his first cornet at a pawn shop for $7, and he was mostly self-taught.”
“Before I ever touched a musical instrument of any kind, I had listened to so much Bix that I had, without trying, memorized quite a number of his solos,” Cullum was quoted in his obituary. “To my father’s surprise, I was able to hum and whistle the tunes.”
“My dad would say that he had what he called the jazz disease, and it just got him,” Sullivan said. His success was due to “a combination of things,” she continued. “One was that he worked at it. He didn’t just pick it up and halfway do it. He really worked and practiced and listened.”
Sheridan echoed Sullivan’s sentiment. “He was going to get it done no matter what. If there were times he would fall down, he’d get right back up again and keep charging,” he said.
Sullivan said her grandfather did not pressure her father to play; if anything, her father reinvigorated Jim Sr.’s interest in playing, from which he had taken a break. “He was absolutely doing it on his own, and then my grandfather discovered he was learning this music, and they started to have a lot of fun with it.”
Father and son (along with other musicians) formed the Happy Jazz Band. In 1963, they took their venture a step further, establishing Jim Cullum’s Landing (later known as The Landing) in the basement of Nix Hospital. For decades, the club was the band’s home base where they played six nights a week.
“After Jim’s father passed away, he said he was going to keep it going, and he deserves a lot of credit,” Sheridan said. “He was the only guy in the country who had a band and owned a club. In the 1950s, when what they called Dixieland was so big, there were clubs all over the country. As time went on, the Beatles came in and that all died out – all except for The Landing. The Landing was the last club.”
After Jim Sr. passed away, Cullum moved the club to another River Walk spot and, later, renamed their band The Jim Cullum Band. He met Sheridan in the 1970s when Sheridan was living in Dallas and playing with a band similar to Cullum’s. “He would come in, and we would jam,” Sheridan recalled. “I got to know the guys in the band pretty well. [In] about 1976, Jim said, ‘I really like the way you play. If I ever have an opening, would you like to come down and join us?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’ and in 1979 it finally happened. I loved the kind of music Jim played, and I really wanted to do that, and I wanted to do it six nights a week. He gave me the chance to.”
Nonstop Work and Play
The band did not just limit their talents to the River Walk, however. In addition to releasing 50 albums, they also played at notable venues. They played Carnegie Hall, the White House, Austin City Limits music festival, and The Kennedy Center among others. They also performed at more than 300 jazz masses at churches throughout the United States, spurring Pope John Paul II to send them a thank you letter. President Lyndon B. Johnson also recognized their work, and the City of San Antonio honored them with the Distinction in the Arts Award.
“We just did this all the time,” Sheridan said of the band’s propensity for nonstop working, adding that working with Cullum, “didn’t hurt me any. I did learn how to write for a band like that, and it was great. I was busy all the time. In the peak of the season (and the season would go from February to basically after Fiesta [San Antonio], and pick up again after Labor Day right into New Year’s Eve), we were open from noon till two in the morning. Jim was there all the time at night. His main interest was the band.”
The Jim Cullum Band also served on the faculty of the Stanford Jazz Workshop at Stanford University in California. They worked to help budding musicians hone their craft. “We went out there once a year in the summer, and we’d spend one or two weeks there in conjunction with the Bohemian Grove (a music fraternity of sorts of which Cullum was a member). The band would spend the last weekend of July there; it was a private organization, a retreat, and there’s no place like it. We would do both of those.”
More Than His Music
While Cullum’s life mostly centered on his music career, he was well-rounded with a variety of interests, his daughter said. “He was just naturally a truly creative person,” she said. “[Not] just a great musician; he could write amazing short stories, draw pictures, and come up with clever ideas. He was involved in . . . our neighborhood and the city. I could go on and on about all the different parts of his life. He was really smart and very well read and studied history. But mostly he was just really, really fun.”
He passed on his love for San Antonio to his children, who grew up experiencing the city through his eyes. “It was always such a romantic city and this sort of nighttime place where we could walk home from The Landing late at night,” Sullivan said. “There were all these special things about it that he taught us about that we loved. We would sit at night and wait for the Gulf breeze… [listening] to the cicadas, and he would write stories about the old houses in the city, and we’d listen to the mariachi music. We grew up in a jazz club, and it was very exciting and very romantic.”
Sullivan lived next door to her father for the last fifteen years of his life. “He loved where he lived,” she said. “He didn’t have air conditioning in his house because he liked to have the smells and the sounds of the air around him. When I would come visit him when I lived outside San Antonio, he’d say, ‘Welcome to paradise.’ As far as we were concerned, San Antonio is just the greatest city in the whole world.”
Despite working almost nonstop, Cullum was a loving father who never met a stranger; only some of his magnetism was due to his public career. “For me growing up, anytime we went anywhere people recognized him and would come up and talk to him,” Sullivan said. “He was very well known in San Antonio, but he was also just friendly and loved talking to people.”
A casualty of time, the radio show went off the air and jazz music became lesser known. Still, San Antonio’s admiration for Cullum was shockingly evident at his memorial service. It was held at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. “The whole place was packed, so whatever the center can hold was how many people were in there,” Sullivan said. “I would think it was at least a thousand people. People just came in until they couldn’t.”
Aptly, live jazz music played a major role in the memorial. “My dad was a very humble person so I don’t know how he would have felt about this great big huge thing, but I think he would have really appreciated the music,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, who spoke at the service, compared it to being enveloped in a comforting embrace. “I felt like all those people there were people I knew even if I didn’t, and it just felt very loving and supportive,” she said.
Written tributes from friends and fans throughout the nation still accompany Cullum’s obituary online. They are, no doubt, a comfort to his family and friends, who still grieve the void he left.
“Never missed a radio show from The Landing,” said Peter Martin of Springfield, Pennsylvania. “A true legend. His music brought so much happiness to my 93-year-old life and still does.”
“Loved his music since the first time I heard it,” Jay Richardson, of Winter Haven, Florida, wrote. “It ended too soon, but what a life he led: giving enjoyment to countless people while doing what he loved best.”