Jim Cullum started the tradition of turning the San Antonio River green on St. Patrick's Day.
Jim Cullum plays his cornet next to the San Antonio River in March 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Cornetist Jim Cullum Jr., a towering figure on the San Antonio jazz scene and known well beyond it via his Riverwalk Jazz public radio program, died Sunday at his River Road neighborhood home of an apparent heart attack. He was 77.

A public memorial to celebrate Cullum’s life and music will be held at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Aug. 31, at 2 p.m. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band will play, and friends and family of Cullum will speak. The event is free and open to the public.

“He was just so vibrant, I expected him to go on forever,” said Hector Saldaña, Texas music curator for the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

Saldaña said he’d seen Cullum play hundreds of times over the years with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band but that the true importance of the accomplished cornetist and aficionado of early-era jazz came into focus at the 2016 funeral of clarinetist Pete Fountain in New Orleans.

“When I saw [Cullum] received with a king’s welcome from very diverse musicians” in attendance at the funeral, Saldaña said, he realized “they saw him as that living embodiment of the greats” like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Fountain, and many others whom Cullum and his father had played alongside.

“He was a bridge to the golden era of jazz,” Saldaña said, and “there in our midst in San Antonio we had a living, breathing connection to those greats.”

Cullum began playing with Jim Cullum Sr.’s Happy Jazz Band in 1962, which became the house band at Cullum Sr.’s club The Landing, one of the first nightlife spots along the now teeming River Walk. The band was noted for acoustic jazz of the 1920s-30s, including Dixieland, gospel hymns, and blues, a focus that Cullum Jr. continued when he inherited the band in 1973 upon his father’s death.

The group became a local fixture, playing up to six nights per week regularly at downtown venues including the Gunter Hotel, the Argyle Club, Tucker’s Kozy Korner, and the Cookhouse, where Cullum played his last gig on Friday night.

Pianist and arranger John Sheridan joined the band in 1979, and with the exception of an eight-year period away, played with Cullum all the way through Friday. “The band sounded really terrific all night,” Sheridan said, “it was a good night.”

Sheridan said Cullum’s philosophy was to approach each gig the same way – that “it doesn’t matter whether you’re at the Cookhouse or Carnegie Hall,” which the band played in 1987. “His legacy is that he kept it going,” Sheridan said of the classic jazz tradition.

Cullum also shared his extensive knowledge of the early jazz era through Riverwalk Jazz, the public radio program he began broadcasting in 1987.

The program was in the tradition of old-time radio, with live music and commentary, and “ignited our sense of theater of the mind to take us to another place and time in jazz,” said J.J. Lopez, general manager of the KRTU 91.7 FM jazz station at Trinity University. In time, Riverwalk Jazz was distributed internationally and is currently archived on the Stanford University Libraries website, with a trove of music and stories written by Cullum detailing his own history and the city’s musical history and richly illustrated with era photographs.

The Jim Cullum Jazz Band delights the crowd at Trinity University's Skyline Room. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band at Trinity University’s Skyline Room in 2014 Credit: Courtesy / Krysteen Villareal

Lopez recently worked with Cullum to establish the monthly Skyline Swing live music and dance program at the university and spoke to his colleague on Saturday about expanding the program for an upcoming celebration of Trinity’s 150th anniversary. “Jim was ready to go and loved it,” Lopez said.

The special program on Sept. 7 will now be a tribute to Cullum, with an array of guest musicians who have sat in with Cullum’s band over the years, Lopez said. Details to come on the Skyline Swing website.

Cullum’s sense of historic preservation extended beyond his music to his River Road neighborhood, where he is recognized for doggedly working to preserve the 1926 River Road Country Day School.

Cullum purchased the building in 1994 and lived there with partner Donna Cloud. He served as chair of the River Road Neighborhood Association from 2013 to 2016 and left an impression on his colleagues, said association member Barbara Witte-Howell. “We worked really hard to preserve our neighborhood, and Jim was a star in that constellation,” she said.

“He was protective and decisive. He wanted to get things done,” she said. “He thought that these neighborhoods were a precious and powerful economic generator for San Antonio” and worked to protect the cultural and environmental vitality of the San Antonio River as it underwent development, she said.

Neighbor Dr. Bradley Kayser, a jazz disc jockey with KRTU, said he fondly recalls Cullum playing a solo cornet rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner for the neighborhood’s July 4th celebration last year. Kayser lauded “how much he’s done for the city.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, onetime general manager of KRTU, praised Cullum’s civic activism and said the musician’s interest in the preservation of historic landmarks, neighborhoods, and natural features “was just another outward expression of his values, to protect and preserve the culture from which he came.”

Moreover, Witte-Howell said, Cullum was “a very kind man.” Lopez echoed her thoughts by describing Cullum’s business acumen as “old-school” and “endearing,” with handwritten invoices complete with personal salutations. “I think that’s an example of Jim across the board,” he said.

Saldaña said that though Cullum’s musical reputation is most well-known, his many dear friends will miss his warmth, companionship, and humor. “Yes, he was legendary, but maybe a better word is cherished, beloved,” Saldaña said.

“He was a great man. We’re going to miss him,” Nirenberg said.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...