How 'Riverwalk Jazz' Got On The Radio | Texas Public Radio

How 'Riverwalk Jazz' Got On The Radio

Aug 12, 2019

A publicity photo of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, with host David Holt.

On Sunday, August 11, San Antonio legend Jim Cullum, Jr. passed away at the age of 77. Fellow musicians and fans have been paying tribute to the man, who was committed to spreading the gospel of "hot jazz" to the world. Part of the way that happened was through the magic of radio. 

In 1989, Joe Gwathmey had been back in Texas for scarely a year and things were happening at the fledgling Texas Public Radio. As the general manager of TPR, Gwathmey helped get KSTX 89.1 FM on the air the previous October, bringing National Public Radio programming to San Antonio, the last major media market without such a station. Classical station KPAC was in the process of increasing its power and moving to a new frequency on the radio dial. And cornet player Jim Cullum, who had already been entertaining audiences for a quarter century at The Landing, the Riverwalk's second established business after Casa Rio, came to Gwathmey with an idea to get his band back on the radio. 

The program that became known as "Riverwalk: Live from the Landing" (later "Riverwalk Jazz") began life as a series of radio specials, and was soon picked up by Public Radio International for weekly distribution. Jim Cullum's band left The Landing in 2011, and the program ended its broadcast run in 2015.

In 2017 and 2018, Texas Public Radio's Nathan Cone sat down with Joe Gwathmey for a series of interviews about his life in public radio. Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation, about how Texas Public Radio and PRI brought "hot jazz" back to the airwaves for a nationwide audience with the help of the mysterious "Dr. Jazz," who was credited in every episode of the program, yet to this day remains anonymous.

Below Gwathmey's interview, you can also read a new interview with David Holt, who was the host of "Riverwalk Jazz," where he shares his memories of Jim Cullum Jr., and working on the show.

(Listening to Joe's mellifluous baritone is much more fun than reading the transcript, so if you have time, we encourage you to use the audio player below!) 

Nathan Cone: So, Jim Cullum had an idea to get the the jazz band on the radio. Let's do the "Riverwalk" story. I want to know how that happened.

Joe Gwathmey: It’s a good story. I'd had that initial talk with Jim, and I had told him I was interested in pursuing the idea but we had to get KSTX on the air first, and then we could talk at some future point. So we'd had that talk and I think I must have encountered him a time or two or more after that, when one day I got a call from Jim, and he said, "I want you to listen to this message that somebody left on my phone answering machine." And he said, "I don't know whether to believe this or not, but you listen to it." So he played it for me, and it was a man who identified himself, and said "I saw the band at Carnegie Hall and I want to help you get a bigger audience for what you do. Call me." It sounded earnest and there wasn't anything I heard that sounded like he was crazy. And so I told Jim, "that sounds like something you should follow up on." And so he said, "I will." Sometime later, within a few days at most, he, Jim, called me again and said "I think this guy is for real. And he says that he has money and he's willing to come down here and have a visit, and talk about what he could help us do, to get a bigger audience for the band. And don't you think this might be a way that we could possibly get the band back on the radio?" I said, "Yeah, it sounds like opportunity knocking to me!" So Jim invited... I think I still have to honor his wish to be anonymous.... invited "X" to come visit and have lunch with us, and let's talk with him. And I of course had a pretty big credential because I had worked at NPR for so many years, and NPR was more in those days than just a news and information service. We were producing music programs, including a fair amount of jazz.

Yeah, yeah.

So NPR was known in New York City...

Is that where this fellow was based?

Yes.

Doctor Jazz, as we...

Yeah. That was the "Doctor Jazz." So I had that to bring to the table, my experience and my background. And we had a very pleasant lunch when Doctor Jazz got here. And I described how NPR worked and how sources of programs that were not... not in the NPR corporate organization could distribute their programs through the national NPR's national program service. I described that, and I'm pretty sure Jim described a program that would be very friendly to the legends of jazz. Classic American jazz. And Doctor Jazz liked what he heard, and it turned out that he did have a lot of money.

Was he a medical doctor?

Yes. And he had a very, very strong interest in preserving classic American jazz, as it turned out.

Pre-World War II sound.

Yeah, yeah. Principally. And so that's where the money came from. And as I would say to various interest groups ever afterward, these opportunities almost never land on your doorstep. There was enough money available for us to launch the program and demonstrate what it could be in time to attract money from other sources to support the ongoing production of the program after Doctor Jazz's initial support had come to its end. And he never went entirely away, by the way. [He] continued to be a financial contributor for many years. So that's the, that's not quite all the story, the rest of the story about that was that Jim had a friend who had been I guess the producer of the band on radio in its earlier days that he invited to come talk to us about producing something suitable for public radio that did not work out, as it turned out. I was thinking at the time, we need somebody like Margaret Pick, who has the kind of experience that Margaret has in producing radio. 

What had she been doing?

Margaret Pick was an independent producer at the time. But her primary experience as a radio producer had been with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. And she had been the producer of that program for a number of years and then left the program, left Minnesota, went to California.

Tough choice!

...Lived in Petaluma...

Paradise!

Jim Cullum Jr., performing in 2019.
Credit Javier Fernandez

...Next to the Napa Valley. So I said, "We need somebody like Margaret Pick." And I knew some people that we could talk to. The people who produced Mountain Stage, which was based in West Virginia, came to San Antonio for some reason. I don't remember what exactly, but we talked with them about their experience and who they might recommend as possible possibilities as producer. And by coincidence... And this sounds too coincidental to be true, but I believe it is true, I think I'm not making this up... one of Jim's agents, or maybe his agent at the time, it turned out, was also Margaret Pick's agent. And as improbable as that seems...we got in touch with Margaret herself, not just somebody like Margaret, and asked if she had any interest. She was interested enough at least to come to San Antonio and to meet Jim and visit the band. They were in The Landing at the time, every night. Well, not every night. I guess they took Sunday night off. But at any rate, Margaret stayed for three or four days assessing the situation, and she said "I would like to be your producer." That's how the connection with Margaret came to pass. And she had a lot to do right there in lockstep with Jim on developing what the hour-long jazz program was going to be. It was going to celebrate American jazz, and it was going to celebrate the people who made American jazz, while they were still living.

And through storytelling.

Exactly. Scripted, really tightly scripted. And it made it work. And that was the happy, almost unbelievable set of circumstances, the initial call from Doctor Jazz and his delivering on what he said he could do, and the association of Margaret, with the band, in producing the radio series. You couldn't have written that any better.

Yeah.

You would say if it had been made up, "ah, that would never happen." And it did happen.

Was David Holt a part of it from the beginning too, as host and narrator?

Very close to the beginning... if not the first program. I think-- no, not the first program. That was Groucho Marx's announcer.

Really, like the dude from "You Bet Your Life" announcer?

Yeah.

Wow. I don't recall his name, either.

He hosted. We did... the first three programs were promoted and distributed as holiday specials. On July 4th and Labor Day. I guess Memorial Day, maybe, was the third one, but um, George Fenneman? I think that was his name.

Yeah.

Joe Gwathmey, former General Manager of Texas Public Radio.

And he was well known, and that helped get some attention from the stations because we offered these programs as live broadcast specials, and the "name" announcer [helped], and I forget now, Doc Cheatham I think was the featured guest on one of those. I think Odetta was a featured guest on one of those three specials. We were looking for headliners. And the broadcasts were live from The Landing. We had a truck parked in a parking lot across the street, across the river from The Landing with a satellite dish on top of it. That was quite a scramble to make that live broadcast happen from downtown.

That must have taken so much precision. Because you talked about it being tightly scripted, about the performances that have to come off, about the technical things that have to happen. Amazing.

And just to add to that, downtown was pretty torn up by the tri-party project. This had to do with the paving and creating new lanes of traffic. I don't know what all, but it was a mess. And we had to get the satellite truck onto that parking lot. And we also had to get a truck that was going to serve as the control room. An outfit out of Austin came down with... It wasn't an 18 wheeler... I guess it was whatever is the last iteration before you get to 18! But we had to park that next to the Hyatt Regency Hotel where The Landing was located, and we had a hard time getting permits for those trucks because of the construction downtown and had some sleepless nights worrying about what it was going to take to get those permits.

*****

"Riverwalk: Live from the Landing" eventually found a home on over 150 public radio stations, sharing the stories of America's homegrown artform with the world for a quarter of a century. You can access streaming audio of the complete archive of "Riverwalk Jazz" online at the Stanford University website.

BELOW: An excerpt from a special edition of "Riverwalk Jazz" taped at the Carver Community Cultural Center in San Antonio.

Interview with David Holt, conducted August 12, 2019. This transcript has been edited for content and clarity.

Nathan Cone: I kind of wanted to know from you, at what point did you come into the mix with the show. Joe talked about how the first original live broadcast featured George Fenneman as host and announcer. When did you come in?

David Holt: Right after that. I think they did that show and then they started looking for another host. And this could be apocryphal, or I can't remember. My memory of it is the reason they hired me is because they wanted somebody that can interview old musicians, which I had been doing on a national network, with country musicians, on PBS with a folk show called "Folkways." And they wanted somebody to tell a story, which I did professionally anyway, and somebody who didn't sound like Garrison Keillor! You know Margaret [Pick] and Lynne Cruise had worked with Garrison to really build A Prairie Home Companion to what it was in its heyday. And she wanted a storytelling voice, but not one that style. So I came down and auditioned. Anyway, it started up right away.

When you taped those shows, I'm trying to hard to remember now... Were they pretty much done in real time?

Absolutely. Yeah. So we started out and it was... maybe it was going to be a situation where Margaret would write sort of bullet points in the script, and I would just say them and tell the story off the top of my head, but the scripts became so complicated with musical intros and cuts into them with records, that it pretty much had to be totally scripted. And so it made for some great writing.

What were your first impressions of the band? Had you known about them before coming in for this audition and being a part of the show?

Yes, I heard-- I'm from Texas, originally, when I was a kid. So I'd heard of Jim Cullum and The Landing. And I was just super impressed with how great they were, because I've always loved vintage jazz and have a lot of vintage jazz records. Even though I make a living playing traditional mountain music, I just love that music, so I was really knocked out by the fact that they played six nights a week, three, four hours a night, and there was--there is--no better traditional jazz band in the country than those guys. They really were very true to the material, and knew a lot about it and really revered it and respected it. It was never cheesy. It was nothing but professional and great. As the original artists were, Louis Armstrong, and all those people. So I was really impressed with the band.

Yeah I agree with you that it was never cheesy. I mean, when you try to tell somebody, "yeah I'm going to go listen to a traditional jazz" or a Dixieland Jazz Band, I think most people's first impression is that it's gonna be some sort of rinky-dink sound. But when these guys come up on the bandstand, I mean they will, like, blow you away.

Yeah they're such good musicians. They knew the material, they knew the people who they were admiring, and kind of bringing back to life. And then there was always the addition of these fantastic other greats like Lionel Hampton and Dick Hyman and Clark Terry and Joe Williams… it was just a thrill to be around those people. And it was great, because I was the host of the show, and a lot of the band members were kind of afraid to talk to somebody like Joe Williams. They admired him so much that they just you know were speechless, didn't know what to say! And it was my job to make him feel at home and I loved doing that, because I wasn't afraid. So it was great to just be around and spend the day with them I got to be really good friends with Clark Terry and that was something I always treasure.

What was your working relationship with Jim like?

Jim was pretty business-like. You know, he had to run that club and he had to come in, and he had a very strong idea about how the music should be. There wasn't much goofing around with Jim. He was pretty much right there to do the job and get it done. He had a lot to think about, but he was a good leader. He was able to keep that band together all these years and keep that show together all these years. I don't think many people could have done that, really. He was he was strong but he was willing to take other people's ideas as well.

Well I'm glad that you were a part of this show, David, as a warm and inviting presence to lead listeners into the show and guide them through the music. It was a great element, to have you a part of that.

It was one of the best musical experiences of my life, even though I got to play with Doc Watson for 14 years (which is the top musical experience in my life)! But being there, listening to it and knowing I didn't have to play, I could just hear the very best in the world. That was an exciting thing. I never regretted being there. I always loved it. Each show is just the highlight of my musical life.

Well fantastic, David. Thanks so much for giving me a few words today. I really appreciate it.

Yeah. Thanks Nathan. Good to talk to you.

Below: A 2007 interview with Jim Cullum, Jr.

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