September 20, 1941, Dallas — San Antonio, August 11, 2019
Cullum, a cornetist, bandleader, and educator, was dedicated to preserving the music of jazz’s early giants, such as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jelly Roll Morton. Never was that more apparent than on March 11, 2017, at the Sarasota Jazz Festival when he led a band for a concert divided into three segments celebrating the music of Armstrong, Beiderbecke, and Morton.
The SJF that year honored pianist/composer Dick Hyman, who had just celebrated his 90th birthday. Hyman was a special guest in Cullum’s band, and the selections ranged from “Potato Head Blues” and “Muskrat Ramble” (Armstrong), to “At the Jazz Band Ball” and “Royal Garden Blues” (Beiderbecke) to “Black Bottom Stomp” and “Milenberg Joys” (Morton). Other members of the band, besides Cullum and Hyman, were trombonist Mike Pittsley, bassist Phil Flanigan, drummer Kevin Hess, clarinetist Allan Vache, and John Sheridan, sharing the piano with Hyman.
Cullum’s family moved from Dallas to San Antonio when he was 12 years old. His father, Jim Cullum, Sr., who died in 1973, was a reed player and had played with Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Dorsey, among others. In 1962, father and son formed the Happy Jazz Band and then opened the Landing, one of the first jazz clubs on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. It eventually moved to the Hyatt Regency before Cullum, Jr., sold it in 2009.
In addition to live performances and recordings, Cullum was able to keep early traditional jazz alive on the radio. Public Radio International distributed his weekly series, Riverwalk: Live From the Landing (later renamed Riverwalk Jazz) from 1989 to 2012. Jazz author (and Jersey Jazz columnist) Dan Morgenstern told The Washington Post‘s Adam Bernstein (August 12, 2019) that Cullum’s skill was, “in not making the music sound like a reproduction of an antiquated style, but in keeping it lively and fun, and he did that. You keep it alive by making it sound alive.” Bassist Brian Nalepka, in a Facebook post, described Cullum as “a real force of nature. I always admired and appreciated his energy and enthusiasm.”
The Jim Cullum Jazz band recorded several albums, but the bandleader’s favorite was an instrumental interpretation of George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess (CBS Records: 1989). The Washington Post‘s Mike Joyce applauded the album for its “subtlety and verve”, and AllAboutJazz‘s Jack Bowers wrote that Cullum’s band helped “bring the score vibrantly to life, such that one scarcely misses the lyrics.”
Cause of Cullum’s death was an apparent heart attack. Survivors include his longtime companion, Donna Cloud; his sister, Mary Conoly Hester; daughters, Bonnie Cullum, Blanquita Sullivan, Lene Connor-Foley, Katie Cullum, and Catlin Cloud; sons, Chris Cullum and James Cullum; and six grandchildren.