Jim Cullum, Jr. said it with music. The jazz legend, who exemplified the artistic spirit and energy of San Antonio for nearly 60 years, died peacefully at home on Sunday, August 11, 2019. Cullum was 77 years old.
Cullum played alongside greats such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Joe Venuti, Pete Fountain, Lionel Hampton, Jack Teagarden, Doc Severinsen, Dick Hyman, and hundreds of other brilliant musicians.
The members of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band were ambassadors for the City of San Antonio, entertaining and educating audiences around the world. Cullum’s Riverwalk Jazz, a radio program syndicated on NPR, was broadcast weekly coast-to-coast on over 200 stations for 25 years, including WRTI, and is archived through Stanford University Libraries.
The band played at Carnegie Hall, the White House, Austin City Limits, Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center, Preservation Hall, The Kennedy Center, and hundreds of other venues. They cut 50 records, including the award-winning adaptation of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which Cullum considered the band’s finest work.
Cullum once wrote, “Why is jazz important at all? 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.”
Born To Play
James Albert Cullum, Jr. was born on September 20, 1941 to James Albert Cullum, Sr., and Conoly Prendergast Cullum. Jim Cullum, Sr. was an accomplished jazz clarinetist and saxophonist who toured with legendary jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden. In 1953, the family moved from their native Dallas to San Antonio, where Jim began to listen to his father’s 78 rpm records, which were stashed away in his bedroom. Young Jim Jr. spent his formative years listening to the recorded sounds of Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and early Texas jazz and blues legends Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lead Belly.
“Before I ever touched a musical instrument of any kind, I had listened to so much Bix that I had, without trying, memorized quite a number of his solos,” Cullum said. “To my father’s surprise I was able to hum and whistle the tunes.”
At 14 years old, Cullum bought his first cornet, a 1905 C. Bruno and Sons B♭ cornet that cost $7, from a pawnshop. He went on to perform his first professional gig at the local Dairy Queen, in exchange for all the ice cream, hamburgers, and French fries he could eat. Jim Sr., inspired by his son’s passion for jazz, began to play again, this time with his son and other local musicians, forming The Happy Jazz Band.
In 1963, father and son and a group of investors established The Landing jazz club in the basement of the Nix Hospital, the first-ever nightclub on the Riverwalk. The band would go on to play live performances at The Landing six nights a week for decades. After the death of Jim Cullum, Sr., the Landing moved to a new location on the Riverwalk. Later, the band was renamed The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Cullum cherished the hot jazz ensembles of the 1920s and 30s and would go on to play traditional jazz to the highest standard. The band also performed over 300 jazz masses at houses of worship across the United States. In recent years, Cullum continued performing concerts locally and around the world, teaching music workshops, and serving as the president of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation.
The accolades of Cullum and the band are too many to name, but range from receiving letters of thanks from Pope John Paul II and President Lyndon Johnson to being honored with the Distinction in the Arts from the City of San Antonio.
Love of Life in San Antonio
A historian and preservationist at heart, he was a relentless advocate for the preservation of historic San Antonio. Lauded for his integrity and generosity, Cullum lived by the Golden Rule with a deep compassion for others. He was a mentor to countless individuals and had a contagious sense of humor and distinctive laugh.
Often seen driving his 1952 MG Roadster around town, he was an elegant Bohemian, a true gentleman and a romantic. He reveled in the silence of the night when he could sometimes hear the roar of the lions at the nearby San Antonio Zoo.
Jim Cullum is survived by his longtime companion Donna Cloud; sister Mary Conoly Hester; cousin George Nash; children Bonnie Cullum and 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; grandchildren Eloise, Amelie, Eva, Henry, Grace, and Addison; and a large extended family in Dallas and San Antonio.