If Saturday’s tribute to San Antonio jazz great Jim Cullum Jr. was evidence, things don’t generally go by the book when it comes to jazz musicians.
Normally, audience members don’t bring their own instruments with them into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts H-E-B Performance Hall. Normally, an official proclamation from Mayor Ron Nirenberg doesn’t include the words “whereas Cullum, known for his dapper wardrobe, silk bow ties, and occasional fedora,” and normally, most San Antonio funerals are occasions more for sorrow than for joy.
But the Saturday afternoon public tribute for James Albert Cullum Jr., known as “Jim,” was a joyous, even raucous several hours of celebration of the life of Cullum, whose son James called “uncompromisingly the greatest jazz musician ever to come from the great state of Texas.”
Cullum in fact was recognized by the state of Texas when Gov. Greg Abbott flew a state flag over the courthouse in his honor earlier Saturday, according to master of ceremonies J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chair of the Tobin Endowment. Bugg read Abbott’s statement and presented the flag to Donna Cloud, Cullum’s life partner. Recognition from his home city included the proclamation Nirenberg read, which named Aug. 31, 2019 as “Jim Cullum Jr. Day.” Cullum died Aug. 11 at age 77.
Speakers included Cloud, who held aloft Cullum’s antique cornet, and Cullum’s children Bonnie Cullum, Blanquita Sullivan, and James Wilson Cullum, along with dignitaries including Nirenberg and former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. All praised the musician’s many accomplishments, including opening the second business located on the River Walk, presenting traditional jazz through his “River Walk Jazz” public radio program that aired on more than 200 stations around the country, entertaining audiences around the globe, and for his work as a civic activist.
Fans of Cullum in the audience also learned personal details of Cullum’s life, including his five marriages and six children. Daughter Blanquita Sullivan told of her father’s personality and eccentricities.
“If he liked the music playing in an elevator, he would ride it up and down for an hour or more, just listening,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes after dinner, when asked which thing we wanted on the dessert tray, he would look at it earnestly and he would say, we want it all! We want it all. That was how he lived. We want all the romance, all the fun, all the adventure.”
She described his music as “his voice,” and said “His sound was his body and soul. … The way he played his music was the way he lived his life, with unreserved and total zeal, something he liked to call Ya-ha. Dad had plenty of Ya-ha.”
Between speakers, Cullum’s Dixieland jazz 10-piece ensemble entertained the crowd with sometimes mournful, sometimes gleeful jazz numbers. “West End Blues” was introduced by Cullum himself, via a video of his 1985 Austin City Limits performance. Following Cullum’s scintillating cornet intro, the band seamlessly picked up the tune. After trading solos and coming together in the melodic cacophony of “High Society” later in the program, they earned a standing ovation from what Bugg described as the “absolutely packed” auditorium’s audience.
The event was witnessed by a worldwide audience, streamed live on YouTube by family friend Melissa Vogt. Eldest daughter Bonnie Cullum said she’d heard from fans in Europe watching, as well as others throughout the U.S.
As the stage presentation neared its close, Bugg told a story of contacting Cullum through an effort to help New Orleans musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The two would collaborate on a fundraiser called “Chasing the Blues Away,” Bugg said, praising Cullum’s commitment to public service.
“I want to say one thing that maybe needs to be underscored,” Bugg said. “Jim was a quiet crusader for social equality among everyone.”
Cloud also touched on several issues that were important to Cullum, saying “Please, let’s take global warming seriously, and do what we can to help out. And please, let’s be kind to one another. Let’s be tolerant and accepting, celebrate our differences, and agree to disagree with respect and in peace.”
Several earnest tributes to Cullum were made especially for the occasion. New Orleans trumpet player Duke Heitger took to the third level mezzanine alone, to play a solemn tune written written by the jazz legend especially for his colleague, titled “Soliloquy for Jim Cullum.” A red exit sign glowed on the wall behind Heitger as he played to a hushed audience.
Poet George Nash read an occasional poem dedicated to his cousin and close friend, recalling a night out that neither wanted to end. It closed with a thought for Cullum’s beloved San Antonio River, which ran through his life as a jazz musician and businessman, and his home neighborhood of River Road:
and still it was not fully dark
not time to leave
but we left alright,
and now you have left us and we must find some other place
another place on the river
The program, arranged by the family, closed with a traditional New Orleans-style second line march throughout the Tobin Center auditorium and lobby. Dozens of audience members joined in with Cullum’s band and the guest Bohemian Rhapsody band, as is the tradition, with their own drums, banjos, saxophones, clarinets, trombones, trumpets, and cornets.
Fans mingled until 6 p.m. in the Tobin lobby and mezzanine, chatting with family members. Cullum’s survivors include Cloud, former wives Susan Kelso, Kate McKinney, Blanquita Cullum, Renee Helms, and Tina Cullum; children Bonnie, Chris, James, and Dr. Katie Cullum, Lené Conner-Foley, and Blanquita Sullivan; and grandchildren Henry Cullum; Grace and Addison Foley; and Eloise, Eva, and Amelie Sullivan.