Back in 1962, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band was formed in San Antonio to carry on the mantle of traditional jazz in the style of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, and other early stars of the jazz era. The group’s success led to the establishment of The Landing, and the long-running public radio program “Riverwalk Jazz.” And while Jim Cullum remains a fixture on the San Antonio scene, there’s now a second band of young cats playing hot jazz in San Antonio, and with Cullum’s blessing.
“He’s a lot nicer to us than he needs to be,” says Kris Vargas with some reverence. Vargas plays trumpet with the Dirty River Dixie Band, and describes the night he and his band met Cullum after going to one of the elder statesman’s gigs at Bohanan’s. “He bought food for us… he even had his wife buy a birthday cake for our piano player!”
“We went to his house and kind of hung out with him and played for him a bit,” continues Chris Alvarado, the band’s drummer. One of the big things he had to say was ‘keep it simple.’”
Maybe, but while Dixieland jazz is admittedly peppier and more melodic than say, bebop, it’s still kind of like organized chaos, with all the members of the group pounding away—but always listening to one another to create a whole sound.
While watching the Dirty River Dixie Band in our studios this summer, my colleagues at TPR and I were overjoyed at the youthful exuberance and energy of the group. Give a look in the video below, and be sure and check out the band live at Jazz, TX on Wednesday, October 25. They’ll be on the bandstand as part of TPR’s “Live At Jazz, TX” radio series, taping two sets for broadcast. To read my interview with Chris and Kris, keep scrolling.
Nathan: [Gestures at Chris and Kris] Looking at all of y’all in our studio, it begs the question… jazz, especially traditional jazz, you don’t think of as a young man’s game. What turned you on to these sounds?
Chris: Well back in 2012, Jim Cullum came to our college, Texas Lutheran University, in Seguin, and he played this Frank Ticheli piece with our wind ensemble and traditional jazz band, like a four movement piece. He brought in the whole band. It was a great concert. I think that kind of hooked us both. So we kind of took to it and started playing some songs, and we really started in this gazebo in downtown Seguin. That’s where we practiced.
Kris: When that concert happened, I was in the band behind [Jim], and he was out in the auditorium listening to the band. I’d never heard of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and when they showed up. These guys were in their 60s and 70s, and they just shuffled up on stage. Me being this skeptical young guy, I was like “oh man,” and they opened up their cases real slow and then they sauntered up there and it was like “BOOM!” It was easy to tap your foot to, and it was exciting and we thought, why not? So we went to that gazebo. We had these printed out arrangements that were terrible—we had no idea what we were doing. Then two months later we started going out and watching Jim play. I think this was when his son bought Tucker’s Kozy Korner on Houston St. They were gonna take it over on January 1st 2013 and Cullum invited us down to listen.
We had just had our first rehearsal ever, we didn’t know what we were doing! We went down there for the opening and we made the mistake of telling them that we had just come from rehearsal so they invited us to play. We went in there, and it was just a train wreck! He said there was a lot of work to be done.
Nathan: What other advice did Jim Cullum give you?
Chris: I always flash back to that one night. We went to listen to him when he was playing at Bohanan’s and then we went to Jim’s house, and kind of hung out with him and played for him a bit. One of the big things he had to say was keep it simple, and just kind of keep pushing. And the big thing is just staying together on a regular basis. Having the same members. We’ve had the same core group for about a year and a half, for consistent people. Its always tough when someone’s rotating in an out. Every single gig. Its always hard to get tighter so we've gotten to a point where we got the same group and its kind of clicking a bit more.
Kris: hes a lot nicer to us than he needs to be. That night they had just finished playing around midnight and he invited us to his house. He bought food for us. We went upstairs. It was a lesson. He was even nice enough that he had his wife go buy a birthday cake for our piano player. The guy’s an encyclopedia. He’s had so many run-ins with everyone. I think the biggest thing from him is to just keep it clean and simple. We don’t get paid by the note, so we try to stay simple. Silence is good. But he’s been really nice and every time we come down we go see wherever they’re playing. It’s a learning experience. There’s a huge age gap, but I think the love for that traditional music connects us and transcends that age gap.
Chris: I think the thing that sets us apart from people is that we tend to stay traditional to certain chords that they were using back then and the kind of techniques that they were using. You can go off and make it a brass band and do your own thing, but we try to stick to that traditional jazz sound, and that’s what Jim did too, and he put his own spin on it. That’s what we try to do too, to keep the sound alive and not change it, just modify it a bit here and there.
Nathan: Kris you mentioned to me that some people might think traditional jazz sounds – in your words—“hokey pokey.” But what is the one thing that you wish people would know about the sound and about the songs, the musicians, the sounds?
Kris: What’s most fascinating is that when you look back over the last 115-120 years, there’s the transformation—you got all these things that hit together to form what is jazz. And the form that we’re playing is one of the earliest forms. It’s pure. What we do is, you’ve got a lead guy playing and it’s all organized chaos and there’s collective harmonization happening at the same time. The journey of it is fascinating, starting with spirituals back in the day and it all kind of melts together. What people need to know is that it’s fun to listen to, you can tap your foot, and it is the only American art form that was made here, nurtured here, grown here. It’s a beautiful thing. And music in itself, no matter what, is a gorgeous thing. But what people need to know is that you’ve got to give it a chance. You’ve got to go hear it. We get people all the time that ask us what type of music we play and we say “Dixieland, New Orleans type jazz” and they groan “oh, okay!” and then you see them tapping their foot and nodding their heads!
Chris: Last night we played at this tavern with this quartet, and it’s a smaller area. This big party came in and sat by the band and started complaining. They were talking to the waitress and they put them somewhere else, and they seemed like they really didn’t want to hear us play. And at the end of the night we sold four compact discs to that family because they were really digging us. And then another thing is that we play at some weird places where you wouldn’t think jazz would be played, like Sancho’s.
Kris: We played at a battle of the bands where it was all metal bands, and we were the only jazz band!
Chris: In 2014, where we played against that metal band, we went up there and played jazz and we got 2nd place first year, and first place next year.
Nathan: You could probably get some really cool jazz cover arrangements of Metallica tunes!
Kris: Probably the most difficult thing for us is to stick to our guns. Because there’s so many people that start off doing something, then by the time they get to where they are, it’s so different. Some people get really offended when we have to say, “sorry we don’t play that song, it's after World War II,” or they ask us to play “Take Five” and we say, “sorry that’s not our style.” But we stuck to our guns, and we’ve had a really good time. We don’t really see it ending anytime soon, but we’ll see where it goes from here. And were going to continue to stick to our guns because it’s been working for us.
Nathan: What are your professional goals? You talked about teaching, and you’re playing at the same time. Are you going to fall into that traditional mold of teaching during the day and playing gigs at night?
Chris: That’s what I’ve been doing for the past three years. I’m a middle school director in New Braunfels. We teach during the day and play on Thursdays sometimes until 1 am and then go teach in the morning at 7. We can do it while were young, but I’m sure it’ll catch up to me somehow. I love doing it.
Kris: You don’t really think about it. We went to college together, a lot of us were close in college. We were in jazz and concert bands in college and we all graduated and we started the band just before this guy started graduating. For example, Chris and I work in the same school district. I see him almost every day during work. I see him during the day, and there’s a 2-3 hour gap and then I see him at night, and then I don’t see him for 6 hours and then I see him again.
Chris: Sometimes I see him more than my wife! Sometimes it’s enjoyable, sometimes it’s not!!
Nathan: This happens in our professional lives.
Kris: With this band, we’ve met people and have gone to places and done things that never would’ve happened [otherwise]. It’s exciting, and we’ve only been together three and a half years. We’ve been blessed that it keeps going forward.
Nathan: Have y’all done much traveling?
Chris: We haven’t really gone on tour. We get enough work here in town. We’ve gone to Louisiana.
Kris: Of course the funny thing is that the vacation is the band going together and a lot of guys ask if we want to spend time apart, but then it’s weird when a lot of the guys in the band are your best friends. We are around each other a lot and we’ve learned how to deal with each other. We fight and get all upset but it’s all in good fun, and it’s all for the same purpose, of making everything sound good. We take it pretty seriously because we all teach, so we meet up as often as we can to rehearse. This isn’t a jam band, it’s not a band that just comes together and chills, it’s a very fine-tuned, well-rehearsed machine, and we make sure that we do a service to the music. It’s nice to hear people say that we’re a tight band. In the end, in every opportunity, especially now when people record everything [on phones], you got to be on your game all the time. We’ve all heard the stories of where someone is recording and one thing goes wrong, and that’s the end of their career.
Nathan: Or, they end up president. [laughter] Do your students appreciate your music?
Chris: yeah, I try to kind of keep it separate from everything but kids always find out everything. And Eddie, our sousaphone player, he teaches lessons in the district too. So kids eventually find out. We played at a farmers market one time in New Braunfels and I saw three kids at one time, and they were surprised. It’s always fun when they figure it out. I don’t tell them though.
Kris: I’m at the high school more, and those kids are a little bit more daring, so they figure it out. We teach the marching band, too, in New Braunfels, so sometimes we’ll be done with rehearsal at 6 or 7 and then were getting dressed there and all the kids tell us to have a good time at Luna. But what’s really cool is them coming out with their parents and having them see us do. So they’ll pay more attention to what we do in class the next day! What’s going to be weird is when in a couple of years the kids come into the bars.
Chris: That actually happened the other day when we played in Seguin, and a student I taught—one of my kids was already 21 and he was drinking at the bar, and it was a little weird… like I was getting old!