Jim Cullum 1941 – 2019

The San Antonio cornetist and longtime bandleader for NPR’s Riverwalk Jazz was a connoisseur of the hot

Jim Cullum at the Alamo
Jim Cullum at the Alamo (photo: courtesy of Jeff Salzgeber)

Jim Cullum, a cornetist and traditional jazz stalwart who was best known as the house band leader for National Public Radio’s Riverwalk Jazz, died August 11 in his San Antonio, Texas home. He was 77.

His death was announced by Jeff Salzgeber, a representative for the Cullum family. Cause of death was an apparent heart attack, though an investigation is still in progress.

A resident of San Antonio since childhood, Cullum was the son of another celebrated local trad-jazz musician, clarinetist Jim Cullum Sr. As such he was a standard bearer of a family tradition, keeping hot jazz alive and thriving in his hometown. The younger Cullum, however, cultivated that family tradition on a national level with his radio program, then internationally as he began touring and playing festivals around the world.

At the same time, however, he remained steadfastly local. When not on tour, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band performed at Cullum’s San Antonio club, the Landing, six nights a week from 1981 to 2012. He was still leading the band and performing frequently at his passing.

“Why is jazz important at all?” Cullum said. “Well, it is the great 20th-century music, the form that documents with greater eloquence than any other the speed of ideas, the brevity of time, the intensity of longing, the romance of night, the striving for greatness, the sheer fascination of sound itself.”

James Albert Cullum Jr. was born in Dallas, Texas on September 20, 1941 to Jim Sr. and Conoly Prendergast Cullum. His father, a grocer, had previously been a working clarinetist and saxophonist who had toured with trombonist Jack Teagarden.

Yet it wasn’t until young Jim was 12, and his family had moved to San Antonio, that he began exploring his father’s record collection, falling particularly hard for Bix Beiderbecke. Two years later, he had bought a cornet at a pawn shop and was gigging outside a local Dairy Queen (where he got paid in food).

Touched by his son’s devotion, Cullum Sr. came out of his musical retirement, and the two formed the Happy Jazz Band in 1962. The following year, they convinced a group of San Antonio investors to open the Landing in the basement of a skyscraper in the city’s popular Riverwalk district. (The club later moved into the Riverwalk’s Hyatt Regency Hotel.) The Cullums operated the Landing and performed there with the Happy Jazz Band, eventually occupying six nights of the club’s weekly calendar. In that capacity, they also played with musicians who traveled through town, including Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and the great Louis Armstrong.

Jim Cullum Sr. died in 1973. The junior Cullum subsequently took over full responsibility for running both the Landing and the band, which he renamed the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and began touring nationally and internationally, including an ongoing series of jazz masses at churches across the United States.

Beginning in 1989, Cullum was the star of the radio program Riverwalk Jazz, recorded at the Landing and broadcast weekly in syndication on NPR. The program featured Cullum’s band exploring the traditional jazz repertoire of the 1920s and ’30s through themes that included musicians, composers, cities, and movies, among others. Through Riverwalk Jazz, Cullum attracted well-known musicians such as pianist John Sheridan and clarinetists Allan Vaché and Evan Christopher to join his band. He was also able to lure an extensive roster of guests, from Lionel Hampton to Dick Hyman, to appear with the band and on the program.

Not just an ambassador for jazz, Cullum considered himself a spokesman and booster for his hometown. “We were on public radio for 25 years with a nationwide show on 200 stations,” he told WOAI-TV. “And we carried the San Antonio message about how beautiful and interesting San Antonio was.”

Cullum sold the Landing in 2009, but continued to lead its house band until a legal dispute with the new owners ended the relationship. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band subsequently ceased producing new episodes of Riverwalk Jazz, which ended its long and successful run in 2012.

However, Cullum kept the band active and working several nights a week in his remaining years. Under his leadership, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band also released at least 28 recordings.

To the end, though, Cullum insisted that his music was best heard live and without mediation of any kind. “I’m a purist about that too,” he said in a 2011 interview. “There’s nothing amplified; if you hear the music, you hear it right out of the instruments … Every bit of music you will hear in the world, virtually, is coming through speakers. Here, you hear the music through the instruments, and that is a big deal. I play the cornet, and when you hear that sound it’s not the speaker vibrating, it’s my lip.”

Cullum is survived by his longtime companion Donna Cloud; sister Mary Conoly Hester; cousin George Nash; children Bonnie Cullumand husband Chad Salvata, Blanquita Sullivan and husband Michael Sullivan, Lené Connor-Foley and husband Chris Foley, Chris Cullum, James Cullum, Katie Cullum, and Catlin Cloud; six grandchildren; and several extended family members. 

A memorial will be held at the Tobin Center in San Antonio, on August 31. The family requests that donations be made to San Antonio Brass, an organization that provides music education programming for young instrumentalists.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.