Texas Radio Show Jazzing the Airwaves

Americana, People, Traditions
on May 21, 2006

Every week, Jim Cullum introduces traditional jazz to a modern audience on his Public Radio International program, Riverwalk Jazz. Cullum, a bandleader himself, spotlights famous musicians as well as such jazz hot spots as New Orleans, Chicago and . . . Davenport, Iowa?

Indeed"You can have genius born anywhere," says Cullum, who began broadcasting the show from San Antonio in 1988. "Somebody from an out-of-the-way place can become a great jazz artist."

Or a great jazz fan. Cullum's popular radio program, along with the work of top-selling jazz artists like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and singer Diana Krall, is among factors credited for a renewed interest in classic jazz throughout the country. And Cullum always points out to listeners that jazz was created, and is still being refined, in many different regions of America.

Davenport, for instance, is the hometown of Cullum's musical hero, Bix Beiderbecke. As Cullum does, Beiderbecke played the cornet, an instrument similar to the trumpet, and was respected by jazz peers such as legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Davenport still honors Beiderbecke, who died at age 28 in 1931 from complications from alcoholism. On his program, carried on more than 150 radio stations, Cullum has promoted Davenport's memorial sites as well as the town's annual jazz festival in Beiderbecke's name.

In Davenport and other places, Cullum says, it's people who gave jazz life, and it will be people who keep the music living as long as there are places for jazz to be played. "Jazz is not something you just go practice sitting in a room all by yourself," he says. "It has to be performed." Through a sort of negotiation with the fans, the music gets better through interaction with live audiences, he explains.

Cullum, 64, learned this and other music lessons growing up in San Antonioanother city that, before Cullum's radio program, many people did not readily associate with jazz. But it's a town with strong jazz roots, Cullum says, including those of his father, Jim Cullum Sr. The elder Cullum played clarinet in the band of Jack Teagarden, a Texas native who became a pioneering jazz trombone player. Teagarden and other jazz musicians frequently visited the Cullum home and filled the air with the sounds of their musical fusion. "I grew up around musicians," Cullum recalls. "They were always around, and they were jamming."

In 1962, father and son collaborated to form the seven-piece Happy Jazz Band, which soon would find a home at a newly opened club called The Landing on the banks of the San Antonio River. Cullum became leader of the band when his father died in 1973. When Cullum launched his radio show, The Landing became its home base.

Under Cullum's direction, his band plays various styles of "hot," danceable jazzfrom the peppy Dixieland associated with New Orleans to the jitterbug of bandleaders such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. "I tend to like the kind that swings," Cullum says.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Cullum has performed in several benefits for New Orleans and its residents. He hopes the tragedy will lead more Americans to rediscover the nation's jazz heritage that began in that city, and he reminds fans that jazz was once a dominant form of popular music, rather than a subset.

"It's a myth that jazz has to be only esoteric and can't be popular," Cullum says, noting that trumpeter Armstrong, a New Orleans native, was extremely popular, almost a musical superstar in his day. And "in the '30s, bands like (Artie) Shaw's were really good, and really popular." In the jazz world, such an intersection of critical and commercial success is rare. "It was sort of a fluke," acknowledges Cullum.

But through a radio show from the banks of the San Antonio River, he's doing all he can to make that kind of fluke happen again.

Visit www.riverwalk.org for more about Riverwalk Jazz.