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Jim Cullum Celebrates 50 Years This Week On Riverwalk Jazz

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Jim Cullum Jr.
This week Riverwalk Jazz honors The Jim Cullum Jazz Band tocelebrate its 50th Anniversary in a concert recorded live at The Tobin Estate in San Antonio. Bandleader and cornetist Jim Cullum Jr. traces the history of the Band through five decades of performances at home and on the road, from Carnegie Hall to a bull ring in Mexico and concert halls in Siberia.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

For our Golden Jubilee Concert, the Band is joined by pianist John Sheridan, trombonist Mike Pittsley and piano legend Dick Hyman. The performance features the Band’s signature arrangements of music composed by Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and Boots Douglas. Jim recalls luminaries such as Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter, who joined his Band onstage for over two decades of Riverwalk Jazz radio shows on public radio stations nationwide.

In the 1950s when almost everyone else his age was listening to Elvis Presley, Jim Cullum Jr. became fascinated with the sounds of early jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Jelly Roll Morton. Jim’s lifelong passion has been researching and performing repertoire from an often overlooked but increasingly popular era of American music—jazz and popular song from the 1920s and '30s. Jim’s original musical arrangements of this classic jazz repertoire have captured the acclaim of critics, aficionados and new generations of avid fans on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Listening to classic 78 RPM discs from his father's collection on a portable record player, young Jim Jr. memorized Armstrong and Beiderbecke solos by whistling them. Jim was barely in his teens when he plunked down seven dollars for a pawn shop cornet, and then went on to form a 4-piece jazz band coached by his father. Jim Cullum Jr’s talent as a promoter won the ensemble their first gig playing outside a local Dairy Queen. Jim says, “We got four lines of credit and got paid in ice cream cones, milkshakes and hamburgers.”

A few years later, father and son formed the seven-piece Happy Jazz Band. By 1963 the Cullums and a group of San Antonio investors founded the first Landing jazz nightclub on the San Antonio River Walk. A year later the band began broadcasting on local radio, “squirrel cage radio,” as Jim calls it, eventually lead to a regular show on the much larger, 50,00-watt clear-channel AM station, WOAI. Jim says, “It was a powerful signal. One time we got a post card from Bing Crosby who’d heard our live broadcast from San Antonio aboard a yacht in Acapulco Bay.”

A strictly acoustic 7-piece ensemble, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band has earned a reputation as a premiere traditional ensemble in the US and abroad, adding their own unique ensemble sound to the great voices from pre-World War II jazz. Jim’s father, Jim Cullum Sr., was an accomplished musician who played clarinet and saxophone with Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Dorsey. Jim Sr. had close friendships with members of the Bob Crosby Bob Cats—Bob Haggart, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield and Ray Bauduc—who would later influence Jim Jr’s approach to the music.

A major milestone in their five decades of performing was the Band’s participation in a tribute concert to Turk Murphy at Carnegie Hall in January 1987. Organized by Jim Cullum, the concert featured the JCJB, the Hot Antic Jazz Band of France, and Turk’s San Francisco Jazz Band. Jim says, “The whole jazz community admired Turk for his integrity, his persistence, and his music. It was an absolutely thrilling event.”

In 1985, Jim and the Band undertook an adaptation of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This work was recorded for CBS Records and later for the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series with narration by stage legend William Warfield, who had played the title role in a 1950s Broadway production. Jim says, “All my life I’ve admired the work of George Gershwin and particularly Porgy and Bess. No one had ever done a jazz transcription of the entire opera, so we set out to do this in 1985. John Sheridan did a lot of the arranging.”

Jim Cullum also reminisces about his family’s close relationship with fellow Texan Jack Teagarden. Jim says, “Teagarden brought jazz to San Antonio. He was from Vernon, Texas up in the panhandle and came here when he was 15. He joined the musician’s union and started playing at The Horn Palace. Jazz was so new—King Oliver had yet to make his records, and Louis Armstrong was still a kid in New Orleans.”

To close out their 50th Anniversary concert at The Tobin Estate in San Antoniol, Jim Cullum selects “The Raggle Taggle." which the Band played for standing-room-only audiences throughout Russia, by a little-known San Antonio drummer in the 1930s—Boots Douglas.

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