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Jim Cullum Jr., Jazz Band Leader And Cornetist, Dies At 77

Courtesy James Cullum

Longtime San Antonio cornetist and jazz band leader Jim Cullum, Jr. died on Sunday from an apparent heart attack. He was 77.

He spoke to TPR's David Martin Davies in 2009. He said his early cornet playing days were pretty casual.

"Go to school, and chase the girls a little bit, and play the cornet," he joked. "That was, do a minimal amount of homework, and that's kinda what my life was. I was a kid. [Of course,] you grow out of those things; you have to get more serious."

And he did get more serious when he went to community college, then transferred to Trinity University.

"Music was a prime motivator 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 businesses on the Riverwalk.

Cullum was thrilled. "Oh my gosh, it was one of the most fabulous things you can imagine," he recalled. "Here we are — a real audience, in this clever place, and the band was playing!"

One investor in the original Landing club suggested Cullum's Saturday night performances should be broadcast on the radio.

Cullum agreed. "And we began to broadcast on radio station KITY," he said. Cullum's Happy Jazz Band later moved on to WOAI AM, a 50,000 watt powerhouse, which greatly increased the band's popularity.

Credit Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Museum
“Black and white photo of Earl Hines with S. Dance and Jim Cullum Jr. at Ed Nunn's Milwaukee studio, July 1971. Accession number 1989.138.14.”

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 couple of days later I was at Texas Public Radio."

In 1989, Cullum began recording an hour-long live weekly program called "Riverwalk: Live From The Landing," which was later named "Riverwalk Jazz." The program steadily grew in popularity, eventually broadcast on about 200 radio stations across the U.S. and around the world.

The program was produced through 2012, starring luminaries like Lionel Hampton, Norma Teagarden and Clark Terry.

Baylee Badawy from the New Orleans Jazz Museum said Cullum was an early supporter of their efforts promoting jazz.

"The Happy Jazz Band played several concerts with the New Orleans Jazz Club," Badawy explained. "He's really given the gift of New Orleans and traditional New Orleans jazz music to the world. We're very grateful for all of his recordings and his work with, of course, Stanford University."

Credit Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Museum
Earl "Fatha" Hines with Jim Cullum Jr. in Milwaukee, July 1971.

Stanford acquired the archive and made the shows 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 artists from the Great American Songbook.

They mostly played locally, but occasionally gigs would bring them to foreign audiences, including venues in Mexico and Russia.

Cullum sold the The Landing in 2009, and "Riverwalk Jazz" ended in 2012.

The program was over but Cullum's performances were not. His five-piece band would grow with guest musicians, depending on the gig and venue, and he maintained a busy performance schedule.

Doc Watkins, musician and owner of the club Jazz, Texas, said Cullum helped him and many other San Antonio musicians. He put them to work.

"I did dozens of gigs at The Landing... where I cut my teeth as a jazz musician here," Watkins said. "So, yeah, I owe Jim a huge debt of gratitude."

Credit Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Museum
Jim Cullum's Happy Jazz Band featured in a New Orleans Jazz Club concert on Feb. 3, 1976, at Fontainebleau Orleans Hotel.

Watkins said Cullum made major contributions to jazz. He put San Antonio on the musical map.

"When I think of Jim and his legacy and San Antonio, it's similar to Willie Nelson and Austin [or] Stevie Ray Vaughan or one of these figures. ... Jim's legacy [is] never going to fade," he explained.

Services are pending.

In an interview in 2017, TPR asked Cullum if the audience for jazz had changed since 1963 or if it remained the same.

“I don’t think they’re any different,” Cullum said. “You got some people who are really into the music, some people who are out just to get blasted, and some people out for other reasons we can’t talk about on the radio!”

Nathan Cone, TPR's vice president for cultural and community engagement, contributed to this report.

Jack Morgan can be reached at Jack@TPR.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii.

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii