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Musicians Honor The Life Of San Antonio Jazz Legend Jim Cullum

A San Antonio jazz legend was honored by his friends, family, and former bandmates Saturday.

Jim Cullum died Aug. 11 at age 77. His public radio show "Riverwalk Jazz" had a 25-year run on around 200 stations.

From the start, it was clear this was a celebration. 

An eight-piece jazz band made up of local and national musicians who all played with Jim Cullum welcomed the crowd in the lobby with the traditional pre-war jazz Cullum championed. Patrice Johnson was among those gathered around the band.

“I grew up with Jim Cullum. In fact, I grew up with Jim Cullum’s father, too,” Johnson said. “My parents would take me down to the River Walk when he and his father were playing together.”

Cullum and his father founded the Landing in 1963, considered to be the first nightclub on the River Walk.

Jazz guitarist Polly Harrison played at the Landing for 20 years and often subbed for Cullum’s banjo player.

“He kept the old style of music going. He was very protective of the way it should sound,” Harrison said. “And to have it sound like it should, and the harmony and melody sound like it should -- the rhythms and everything -- and besides that, he kept a lot of musicians full-time employed, and we all thank him graciously for that!”

One of those musicians was vocalist John Smyth. He played several shows with Cullum since first meeting him nearly 20 years ago. 

“Jim Cullum is one of a few handful of protectors of the great American songbook. To lose him is a big loss. He had a lot more music in him. To go at 77, he had another 20 years of great tunes in him,” he said.

Clarinetist Ron Hockett played with Cullum for 12 years, from 1999 to 2011. He appeared on 100 original broadcasts of "Riverwalk Jazz."

“Ever since I was a young kid, I wanted to play a steady job with a jazz band where we could play the kind of music we wanted,” Hockett said. “I would just say that every job we played at the Landing was my favorite. I loved that place.”

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Musicians pay tribute to Jim Cullum with an hours-long jam session in the Tobin Center lobby. Aug. 31, 2019.

The tribute inside the Tobin Center theater was both a jazz concert and a heartfelt tribute. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band provided musical interludes between speakers.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg recalled his friendship with Cullum while working at the Trinity University jazz station, KRTU. And he urged the large crowd gathered at the Tobin to support live jazz.

“Do what you can as a lover of this music to keep this music alive for generations to come,” Nirenberg said. “It’s one of the greatest gifts we can ever do, and JC gave it to us every single day. God bless you, Jim.”

Nirenberg honored his friend with a proclamation stating Aug. 31 as Jim Cullum Day in San Antonio.

Bonnie Cullum was Cullum’s first born. 

“He left us in mid-sentence and mid-measure. Thousands of conversations and tunes and projects interrupted and unfinished,” she said.

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Blanquita Sullivan, Jim Cullum's daughter. Aug. 31, 2019.

Bonnie’s younger sister, Blanquita Sullivan, said her father lived his life with an unreserved zeal.

“If he liked music playing in an elevator, he would ride it up and down for an hour or more, just listening. Sometimes after dinner,when asked which thing we wanted on the dessert tray, he would look at it earnestly and say ‘we want it all!’ We want it all. That was how he lived.”

A New Orleans-style procession wrapped up the tribute, with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band marching through the theater in an ever-growing train of people dancing and playing the instruments they brought with them.

An hours-long jam session followed.

While musicians took a break in the lobby, Blanquita Sullivan reflected on some of the most touching memories she had of her father. 

“After he would finish playing, sometimes it would be 2, 3, 4 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “We would have time, just the two of us. We would stay up sometimes till daylight. We would talk. Sometimes we would walk home from the Landing through the San Antonio streets.”

Cullum played with hundreds of jazz legends in his 60-plus year career, including Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Dick Hyman, Doc Severinsen. Many of those collaborations were heard weekly on "Riverwalk Jazz," which came to an end in 2012.

Cullum’s style of jazz may not be the most popular today, but die-hard fans can hear a continuous stream of the almost 400 episodes on the Stanford University Archive of Recorded Sound

Norma Martinez can be reached by email at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter@NormDog1.