Forty years later, the Landing on the River Walk is one of the nation's oldest jazz clubs

In 1953, clarinetist Jim Cullum Sr. moved to San Antonio from Dallas. He had worked with jazz greats Jack Teagarden

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The original Happy Jazz Band in 1963: (from left) Cliff Brewton, piano; Benny Valfre, banjo; Harvey Kindervater, drums; Willson Davis, sousaphone; Gene McKinney, trombone; Jim Cullum Jr., cornet; Jim Cullum Sr., clarinet.
and Jimmy Dorsey, and wanted to start his own band. Together with son Jim Jr., Jim Sr. started the Happy Jazz Band in 1962.

Jim Jr.'s fascination with his dad's Bix Beiderbecke records inspired him to take up the cornet at age 14. "Before I ever touched a musical instrument of any kind, I had listened to so much Bix that I had, without trying, memorized quite a number of his solos," says Cullum.

The Cullums were passionate about the classic sound of pre-World War II jazz bands like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Beiderbecke: Their seven-piece ensemble reflected this passion, which has carried them through 45 recordings, international touring, and showcases at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

In 1963, a group of San Antonio business leaders, led by trombone player Jim Hayne, approached Jim Sr. with the idea of establishing a jazz nightclub on the River Walk. "When we went to the River, there were only two places - Casa Rio was at one end, and we were at the other," says Cullum. "I just loved the whole thing. It was a real, 100 percent pure jazz club in one of the world's most romantic settings." Forty years later, the Landing is one of the nation's oldest jazz clubs.

The club is steeped in the history of jazz. When it opened, Jim Sr.'s old boss Jack Teagarden sent a congratulatory

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Jim Cullum Jr., in a Bix kind of mood.
telegram, which you can see on the wall of the club, along with historic photos: the Cullum band playing for Louis Armstrong, a framed poster of a Duke Ellington concert sponsored by the Cullums, and jazz heavyweights who have played with the band, such as Don Albert, Turk Murphy, Doc Severinsen, Herb Hall, Bobby Hackett, Clifford Scott, Billy Butterfield, Yank Lawson, Emilio and Ernie Caceres. There are also pictures of early versions of the Happy Jazz Band with Jim Sr., who passed away in 1973. "Those photos sure bring back the memories," says Cullum. "All those great players, most of them stood right there and played their best. There is a rich story behind every photo."

The band later changed its name to the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, and its current lineup is one of its very best: Jim Cullum, cornet; Ron Hockett, clarinet; Kenny Rupp, trombone; Jim Turner, piano; Howard Elkins, banjo, guitar, vocals; Don Mopsick, bass fiddle; and Kevin Dorn, drums. "The band is like a baseball team," says jazz veteran Mopsick. "The important thing is the ensemble playing. This band is without peer when it comes to ensemble playing. My favorite thing to do is to turn people on to the rhythmic power of the music. People go nuts when they hear it. It's a revelation to them."

For many years, Jim Sr. promoted his "World Series of Jazz," pitting his band against the world's best musicians: Joe Venuti, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and the Yank Lawson All-Star Band, which Lawson billed as "The World's Greatest Jazz Band." "My father was a natural PR man," says Cullum. "He dreamed up that first world series of jazz, and he and Yank were insulting each other in the Express-News to sell tickets. In reality, they were lifetime best friends." Cullum's band always seemed to win the good-natured contests, but the local jazz fans benefited the most from the showdowns.

In 1980, the band began performing a jazz mass at churches of various denominations. Cullum was inspired to develop the mass after hearing clarinetist Herb Hall play "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" at San Antonio jazz great Don Albert's funeral. The JCJB's mass

8pm Monday-Saturday
The Landing
123 Losoya Street
includes spirituals, psalms, and hymns, and has aired on the band's River Walk radio show, "River Walk: Live From the Landing," a syndicated series on Texas Public Radio since 1988. Locally, the show is on every Saturday night at 7 p.m., with a repeat at noon on Sundays on KSTX 89.1 FM. "Through its remarkable 'River Walk: Live from the Landing' broadcasts ... the `JCJB` of San Antonio has become the best-known of contemporary traditional jazz bands," writes The San Francisco Examiner's Philip Elwood.

In 1998, the JCJB provided three cuts for the soundtrack of the Matthew McConaughey movie, The Newton Boys. Later that same year, the band made its acting debut in the film Still Breathing with Brendan Frasier. Behind the high-profile gigs, the JCJB, together with Pacific Vista Productions and the San Antonio YMCA, is developing River Walk Jazz Education Outreach, an afterschool program for kids grades three to five, to familiarize them with the history of American jazz, and to enable them to participate in hands-on music training.

"I love the music," says Cullum. "Living in it and creating it. I feel privileged just to be playing, and we'll continue as long as I'm able." •

More by Hank Harrison



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