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JIM CULLUM JAZZ BAND

Jim Cullum Jazz Band Photo
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band has provided classic jazz to San Antonio audiences for five decades and hosts the internationally-acclaimed Riverwalk Jazz radio program. Left to right: Kenny Rupp (trombone), Ron Hockett (clarinet and saxophone), Jim Cullum (cornet), Hal Smith (drums), Steve Pikal (bass), Jim Turner (piano), and Howard Elkins (banjo and guitar). Photograph by George Nash, 2010.

JIM CULLUM JAZZ BAND. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band, an internationally-known classic jazz band and the host group on Riverwalk Jazz radio broadcasts, was established as the Happy Jazz Band in San Antonio in 1962 by Jim Cullum, Sr. Cullum grew up in Dallas and cultivated his penchant for playing jazz by taking up the alto sax and later clarinet in the 1930s. In 1933 he was attending Southern Methodist University and performed in its first college band—an ensemble of approximately thirty to thirty-five players that included Cullum’s musical colleague and friend Garner Clark on cornet. After a year, Cullum dropped out of SMU, got married, and went to work in the wholesale grocery business. During the 1940s, however, he returned to music full-time and performed big band swing numbers and worked with, among others, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Dorsey. This musical atmosphere had a profound effect on Cullum’s son, Jim, Jr.

In 1953 the family moved to San Antonio, where Cullum set his music aside and opened his own grocery business. While Cullum, Sr., settled into providing a steady income for the family, Cullum, Jr., was delving into his father’s collection of 78 rpm records and discovered the jazz of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. He also purchased an old cornet at a pawn shop and taught himself to play. While attending Alamo Heights High School, Jim, Jr., played in a small jazz band. Occasionally, his father sat in on saxophone. After graduating high school, young Jim got married and joined his father in the grocery business.

Father and son, frustrated at having no musical outlet, gradually assembled a rhythm section and in 1962 performed for the first time as the Happy Jazz Band. The original lineup included Jim Cullum, Sr., on clarinet; Jim Cullum, Jr., on cornet; Benny Valfre on banjo; Bill Case on piano; Harvey Kindervater on drums; Paul Crawford on trombone; and Wilson Davis on sousaphone. They performed for the San Antonio Jazz Club and searched beer joints around the city for a venue to play and finally secured a Sunday afternoon patio engagement at Rex’s for about six months.


Jim Cullum Jazz Band  with Don Albert and Louis Armstrong
Jim Cullum, Sr., and his Happy Jazz Band enjoyed lively music events such as their “World Championship of Jazz” competitions that pitted the band against other jazz luminaries such as Don Albert’s New Orleans All-Stars. The venerable Louis Armstrong served as “referee” for at least one such contest. Left to right: Jim Cullum Sr., Don Albert, Louis Armstrong, Jim Cullum Jr., ca. 1968. Photograph courtesy of Jim Cullum.

Slowly the band built a following. In 1963, at the behest of trombonist (and new band member) Jim Hayne, a group of San Antonio investors pooled their monies to open a nightclub on the Riverwalk. Located in the basement of the Nix Annex building, the club was called The Landing. It was one of the earliest establishments on the Riverwalk at that time. Only Casa Rio restaurant and a small gift shop were in business there. The Landing became the home for the Happy Jazz Band, which performed on weekends. They eventually released a recording, Jazz From the San Antonio River, on their Happy Jazz label.

The Cullums continued to operate their grocery business during the week until 1968 when the HemisFair celebration brought a wave of tourists to the city. The event spurred the construction of hotels and other businesses along the Riverwalk, and the Happy Jazz Band’s classic sound reached a broader audience. The Cullums sold their grocery business and concentrated on being full-time professional musicians performing five nights a week at The Landing.

During this time, they put together special events, such as the “World Championship of Jazz”—friendly competitions that pitted the band against such luminaries as Pete Fountain and his Band, the Benny Goodman Sextet, Don Albert’s New Orleans All-Stars, Joe Venuti, Earl Hines, and others. During at least one such bout, Louis Armstrong served as the “referee.” During the early years, the band lineup remained fairly stable, though a few changes in personnel occurred. Cliff Gillette replaced Case on piano and later Cliff Brewton replaced Gillette, for example.

In 1973 Jim Cullum, Sr., died of cancer, and his son Jim, Jr., carried on as leader and renamed the group The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Bobby Gordon joined the group on clarinet, and in 1975 Allan Vaché became the band clarinetist. The band continued an impressive output of recordings of traditional jazz, including releases on Cullum’s new American Jazz label. They also toured the jazz festival circuit in addition to their regular schedule of five nights a week. Stops on their tours included the Sacramento Jubilee, Manassas Jazz Festival, St. Louis Ragtime Festival, and Central City Jazz Jamboree.

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Over the years, the group experienced other key personnel changes. Banjoist Howard Elkins and pianist John Sheridan joined the band in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s The Landing nightclub moved to the river level of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band performed six nights a week. They appeared on Austin City Limits in 1985 and performed at Carnegie Hall in 1987. That year Jim Cullum began an association with Texas Public Radio that developed into the internationally-acclaimed Riverwalk Jazz radio program. The program, which has been on the air for almost thirty years, combines live jazz performances by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and their guests with storytelling and biographical elements to tell the story of early jazz from the early 1920s to pre-World War II.

During the 1990s through the early 2000s The Jim Cullum Jazz Band continued its regular performance schedule of five nights a week at The Landing and had earned the title as the “only classic jazz group in America which performs five nights a week on a regular basis.” In 2011 the lineup included leader Jim Cullum, Jr., on cornet, trombonist Kenny Rupp, longtime member Howard Elkins on banjo and guitar, Ron Hockett on clarinet, Jim Turner on piano, Benji Bohannon on drums, and newest member Bernie Attridge on bass. Their weekly radio show Riverwalk Jazz produced by PVPMedia, Inc., on Public Radio International, was heard on more than 150 public radio stations nationwide, as well as on XM Satellite’s Real Jazz Channel and the Riverwalk Jazz site online. The ensemble had recorded some forty-five albums of traditional jazz, and their list of impressive performances included concerts at the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap Farm, and a tour of Russia. 

The Jim Cullum Jazz Band
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band performs at The Landing in San Antonio. Photograph by Jennifer Whitney, 2009.

The Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s longtime association with The Landing ended in 2011. Cullum had sold the club to Christopher Erck but with an assignment of lease that stipulated that Cullum and his band could continue to perform at the venue. Disagreement over renovations and performance conditions provoked a law suit by Cullum who charged fraud and breach-of-contract.  Eventually the suit was dropped, and Cullum moved on. Erck proceeded with major renovations and eventually reopened the club as The Worm Tequila & Mezcal Bar.

Former clarinetist Bobby Gordon died in 2013. In 2015 the band’s core lineup was Cullum, Mike Pittsley (trombone), John Sheridan (piano), Phil Flanagan (string bass). The Jim Cullum Jazz Band played regularly in San Antonio at Tucker’s Kozy Korner, Bohannon’s Steakhouse, and The Cookhouse Restaurant. The group also did some touring.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Sterlin Holmesly, “Texas Jazz Veterans: A Collection of Oral Histories,” The Journal of Texas Music History (2006). Jim Cullum and the Jim Cullum Jazz Band (http://www.jimcullum.com/), accessed September 5, 2015. Riverwalk Jazz (http://www.riverwalkjazz.org/), accessed September 5, 2015. 

Laurie E. Jasinski

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Laurie E. Jasinski, "Jim Cullum Jazz Band," accessed November 22, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xgja2.

Uploaded on May 26, 2015. Modified on October 25, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.