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Dick Hyman Remembers Jim Cullum

The pianist pays tribute to the late trumpeter, bandleader, and longtime cohost of the Riverwalk Jazz radio program (9/20/41 – 8/11/19)

Jim Cullum
Jim Cullum (photo: Robin Jerstad)

It’s sad to write about one’s friendship with a person who has recently passed on. I want to set down some thoughts about my friendship with the late Jim Cullum. Our bond developed over time, when I had become a recurrent guest on Riverwalk Jazz, Jim’s weekly radio program. I would fly down to San Antonio from New York, check in, and show up at Jim’s club, the Landing, on the Riverwalk, a scenic waterway in the middle of town. I would greet Jim and the other guys, as well as the producer Margaret Pick and her staff, and we would all get to work on recording another installment of Jim’s show. It was studio work of the sort I was long experienced in back in New York, but I found it a little different, even exotic, to be doing this sort of thing regularly down in Texas.

I came to appreciate Jim’s ability as a bandleader to combine authority with inspiration, freedom, and looseness. In a jazz group individual creativity from each member of the orchestra is prized, but the overall goal is a collective coming together. In Jim’s case, as with other jazz trumpeters of past generations, the ideal was a bit more specialized, being firmly tied to the attainments of Louis Armstrong. It was a most demanding ideal that Jim sought: on the one hand to improvise freely, and on the other to keep in mind a specific tradition of invention.

Jim’s devotion to this ideal helped me to focus my own playing with him, occasionally in a memorable duet and often with his full band or selected members. I particularly enjoyed interacting with John Sheridan, the pianist and arranger who was my frequent two-piano partner and, when Jim was soloing, the deeply involved conductor. 

We prepared radio programs on a great number of themes: on places which were the earliest locales of jazz performances (New Orleans, Chicago, 52nd Street in New York); on great early performers and composers (Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington); on music from the movies, from Porgy and Bess, from swing-era players such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, from Broadway, and from any intriguing catalogue which came to the creative minds of Jim and Margaret.

I also played with Jim on other occasions—concerts and appearances the details of which have grown a little hazy over the years but which surprise me occasionally by springing to life on the Web. I couldn’t be more pleased than to rediscover these times, or to stay in touch with other members of the group.

Spontaneity in jazz is difficult to define, and is perhaps best understood as a collective performing intuition. Sometimes its results are apparent in a performance that just “happens” with minimum planning; at other times, such as a commitment to a show, an audience, or a radio broadcast, a performance benefits from arrangements and rehearsal. Jim had learned to balance these two needs with his group. As a guest player, I was privileged to join in over a period of some years, and I remain deeply grateful.

Read the JazzTimes obituary for Jim Cullum.