Rollin' on the River

Despite the fact that jazz is one of America's few original art forms, the music and its practitioners are generally neglected. Jazz players are lucky to land regular gigs. Clubs that promote the music rarely draw large crowds, and few of the genre's musicians are household names. Most years, you can count on one hand the number of jazz albums that attain gold status. In other words, the jazz life is not exactly the fastest path to fame and fortune, let alone full-time employment. If you can make it as a jazz musician, you're a cat with serious survival skills.

Cornetist Jim Cullum fits this description. A working jazzer for nearly 40 years, Cullum has led a house band at the Landing in San Antonio and has hosted a weekly radio program from that same venue since 1963. (In public radio circles, at least, he's become a household name.) He has accomplished all this while playing Dixieland jazz in the tradition of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Bix Beiderbecke, hardly the most marketable form of music during the last half-century.

Cullum is the son of Jim Cullum Sr., a clarinetist who played with Jimmy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden. The younger Cullum inherited his father's affinity for traditional jazz, and in 1962 the Cullums formed the Happy Jazz Band. The next year, they got together with several other investors and started the Landing on San Antonio's Riverwalk. The club was one of the first businesses to open on this commercial stretch of the San Antonio River, a strip that in 1963 was still in its embryonic state but today is a nationally renowned attraction. The Landing has changed locations twice, finding its current home in 1982 along a high-traffic area of the Riverwalk. "I've been there longer than any other feature on the Riverwalk," Cullum says. "[I've] watched the whole thing unfold."

Upon opening the Landing, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band was installed as the venue's house band. His group's 37-year run at the venue may be the longest active streak for any one jazz performer. Of course, it helps when you own the club. Yet if Cullum weren't filling seats, he couldn't support the venue and his musicians.

"We seriously present the music and its history," he says. "It's a professional company in residence, unique in the country and possibly the world. I really don't know of another one like it a company in residence of full-time professionals going into the repertory that we do to the degree that we do.

"That doesn't necessarily make us great." He laughs. "Winning by default does not mean that it's great."

Cullum's validation has come from a variety of sources. Aside from consistent attendance for his shows, legendary musicians such as Benny Goodman, Doc Severinsen and Earl Hines have stopped at the Landing to play with Cullum's band.

No one would be interested in hearing Cullum's band more than once if it weren't made up of solid musicians or if it played the same jazz tunes over and over again. Instead, the band delves deep into a form of music that peaked in popularity before World War II and tries to make it palatable for contemporary audiences. So far, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band has been quite successful.

"Part of it is the very nature of the music itself and my approach to it as an ongoing, living, breathing thing," Cullum says. "Some people think I'm sort of an anachronism myself, a museum piece myself, but I play the music in the spirit it was intended. We don't read very much of it. It's mostly improvised. We've developed individual styles [that are] compatible with the basic form. It's highly improvised. It's not ever played the same way, therefore it's not any more a museum piece now than when Armstrong first started doing it. It's very much the same kind of creative process. It's all new all the time."

Playing highly improvised music requires extreme discipline. At times, all seven members of Cullum's band are improvising at once. To some, that may seem like a train wreck waiting to happen, but Cullum's band, steeped in years of experience, makes it run smoothly. They play by certain rules and follow a song's form closely. "I teach this kind of thing at Stanford University," Cullum says, "and the kids are kind of flabbergasted to see how you can have seven people improvising simultaneously and not have cacophony as a result. It's not only possible, we do it every single time."

Cullum says reaching this level of proficiency requires that he and his bandmates concentrate on simplicity. "Simplify, simplify, simplify," he says. "Nobody in the band ever tries to show how many notes they can play. There's no showing off, in other words. That works as a destructive force in a band like this. You don't want somebody to stand there and display their virtuosity. If they are doing that, they are in the wrong band, they are in the wrong place, and in the wrong music."

About the same time Cullum started playing at the Landing, he also landed a radio show on a small local FM station. The concept was simple: live music from the Landing at San Antonio's Riverwalk. Six months later he took the program to WOAI-AM, a 50,000-watt clear channel that can be heard across the country at night. Cullum's program changed radio stations a few more times until the summer of 1988, when he decided to syndicate it through American Public Radio (now known as Public Radio International). Twelve years later, Riverwalk, Live from the Landing is carried on more than 200 public radio stations and pulls in an estimated one million listeners every week. People who have never been to San Antonio know about the Landing, and in some cases the Riverwalk, just because they've heard the program. It's also one of the longest-running music programs on public radio.

"It helps perpetuate the style of the music," Cullum says of his program. "It's largely a genre that has been overlooked and forgotten by the vast majority of Americans, though it's one that contains tremendous depth and artistic background, much more so than many of the folk musics that have emerged from American culture. But it's been largely forgotten so it does help re-establish the music with some listeners and carry it forward."

It has also brought a few more customers and musicians to the Landing, where, everyone will agree, traditional jazz lives.

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Paul J. MacArthur