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The Jim Cullum Jazz Band Celebrates 50 Years

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Riverwalk Jazz on Public Radio International
Riverwalk Jazz this week celebrates the 50th Anniversary of The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band in a concert recorded live 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 sattelite 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 special guest, piano legend Dick Hyman. This celebratory performance features the band's signature arrangements of music composed by George 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 locked onto 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.

At an early age, Jim Jr. developed a secret passion for his father's collection of classic jazz 78rpm records by Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden. Listening to early jazz greats on his sister's portable record player behind the closed doors of his own bedroom, young Jim Jr. memorized Armstrong and Beiderbecke solos by whistling them. Jim was barely in his teens when he plunked down $7 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 Riverwalk in the basement of the Nix Hospital building. 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, specializing in a highly individual sound developed from pre-World War II jazz. Jim's father, Jim Cullum Sr., was an accomplished musician who played clarinet and saxophone in bands led by 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.

In our show this week, Jim shares high points of the band's career, including appearances at Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, on the PBS TV series Austin City Limits, European tours, and the band's many concert trips to Mexico with stops in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Mexico City and the annual Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato. Jim also tells the story of the Band's first Mexico tour with an entourage of band wives and girlfriends in a broken-down limo converted into a band bus—culminating with a concert in a bull ring, broadcast live across the country.

Another one-of-a-kind event was their April 2007 tour of Russia. In 17 days the band played 9 concert dates across 5 time zones from the Baltic Sea to far eastern Siberia, traveling by air, bus, and 2 days aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway. Jazz-savvy Russian audiences were wildly enthusiastic everywhere they played.

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. The idea of the concert was to honor not only Turk but the whole San Francisco jazz community. 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, whohad 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."

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. And yet, Jack Teagarden was playing jazz at The Horn Palace."

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