The jazz disease
by Jim Cullum, Jr.
Jim Cullum Jr. is the leader of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and proprietor of the Landing Jazz Club on the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio. Jim is also the co-producer of the Riverwalk Jazz public radio series.
Jim began playing cornet in 1955 at age 14. Fascinated with the records of legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Jim was at first self-taught. In high school he organized his fellow musicians into after-the-game dance bands. While attending college, Jim began a partnership with his clarinetist father, the late Jim Cullum, Sr., forming a seven-piece traditional group they called the Happy Jazz Band.
Jim Sr. was born in Dallas and had two careers—one in the family grocery business and another as a jazz reed player. During the 1930s he worked in bands led by Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey and Adrian Rollini.
Part of my fascination with jazz came from a desire to please and win the respect of my father and mother. This desire certainly lay beyond consciousness, for when I began discovering jazz I was a typical early adolescent and would never have voluntarily done what my "prehistoric" parents wanted.
But I always admired them. They were tangled up with jazz in a big way and like any wild adventure, theirs was a life of extremes. They had lived the craziest, wackiest, most romantic life and had the most fun—at least so it seemed to me. Ernest Hemingway had nothing on my fun-loving father. But for a few years beginning in about 1949, life performed one of its inevitable flip-flops and things weren't quite as much fun anymore. Dad was 35 that year.
Jim Cullum Sr. in Dallas in the 1940s
Oh, he didn't give in easily. In fact, even on an off day, he still seemed to have a lot of fun. He had a built-in ability to laugh at life. An example: one day while we were still living in Dallas, I went along while Dad hung out at the "Pink Elephant Lounge" with his drinking buddy, drummer Bob McClendon. Still young men, they were handsome and well-dressed. They always reminded me of a Hope and Crosby "Road" movie. The Pink Elephant was aptly named as it catered to hard-core drinkers. In compliance with Texas liquor laws of that time, The Pink Elephant served only beer and set-ups, but its owner ran a small liquor store in the building next door so customers bought distilled spirits by the pint or fifth. The Elephant action would start during the late morning, about 11:00 AM, with a few regulars struggling in for "hair of the dog."
One day at the Pink Elephant, I was on hand to witness Dad and McClendon in a classic which started when Dad, laughing and very much in the spirit of the moment, dropped McClendon's hat on the floor and stomped on it. Wow! Take that! (He had been joking about the style of the hat for weeks.) With that, McClendon reached over and picked up a large pair of shears that happened to be lying on the bar and cut off Dad's tie. To make this more interesting, it was a cold day and the heat wasn't on in the Elephant. They stood in their overcoats facing each other in a Laurel and Hardy stance and gradually tore and ripped off each other's coats and shirts. One would stand and look on as though defenseless while the other seized a piece of cloth like a suit breast pocket. In a downward thrust—rrrrrip—off would come the pocket. It went on and on to the astonishment of the bartender and the other Pink Elephant customers.
Eventually we left for home, Dad still laughing to himself. But the other side of all this gradually began to emerge. Dad and McClendon were constantly playing practical jokes on each other. The distributor cap would be taken off the car or the electric power or water would get turned off. Twenty chicken dinners were delivered. At this stage my mother was worn out with all this. She was the responsible one—the balancer of books. Family economics were already strained, and Dad's fine Chesterfield overcoat, his suit coat, shirt, and tie were ruined. Although Dad laughed about this for the rest of his life, that afternoon, as reality set in, it wasn't quite so funny.
Why such zaniness? Why such destruction? The "jazz disease," Dad called it. A little madness seemed to go with the territory. Obsessed with jazz, on fire with youthful exuberance, possessors of inborn musical talent, they were at the same time frustrated eccentrics who tended to have disrespect for the bandleaders who employed them. Of course, they wanted perfection both in music and in the music business, and they rarely got it.
One night, after a commercial gig he could barely tolerate, Bob McClendon quit the business and drove to the middle of the Trinity River Viaduct where he contemptuously threw the drums he loved to play into the Trinity and watched them float away. Two weeks later, desperate to play, he bought a funny-looking old set that had been gathering dust around the Musician's Union. The Union secretary had brought them back from France at the end of World War I. McClendon paid him $5.00 for them, took them away and made music on them. Like any addict, he didn't seem to especially like music while he was playing but he couldn't live without it. The jazz disease, no doubt.
Too much drinking fit right in with all of this. In fact, drinking and driving were standard for those guys in those years. Behind the wheel, they would often take a slug and follow with a quick 7-Up chaser. As a boy, I rode in the back seat and was known to drink up the chaser when nobody was looking.
One day I was rolling along in the back seat of the "Bronze Beauty" (cornetist Garner Clark's very used Packard was painted bronze). Dad was driving, Garner rode in the front seat. As we passed through a Dallas neighborhood, we went by a house with a young boy seated on its front porch, playing a trumpet. Garner blanched and commanded, "Stop the car!" We backed up, and gradually the house and young aspiring trumpeter came back into view. Garner got out, stood on the running board, and called over the top of the Bronze Beauty to the boy, "Don't do it! Give it up, before it's too late!" In my father's life, this wild, heavy-drinking, jazz-crazy chase was coming to an end. Like any strong beast, all this didn't die easily but struggled on and off until March, 1953, when Dad took his last drink and, at least for a while, put his horn away.
We moved to San Antonio on my 12th birthday. What a drag, man! I didn't want to move to San Antonio. Leave my friends? (I was 12 years old, remember!). Oh, what a terrible drag!
But for my parents, San Antonio was the "promised land." A second chance at life. Dad, now sober, had a wonderful business opportunity, and he meant to make the best of it. He threw himself in with his amazing energy, drive, and determination as he made up for lost time. He used his father and older brother Marvin as his models and worked hard and smart, and as he zoomed along he built a big new business. The jazz that had driven so much of his life was gone. To everyone's surprise, I began to become obsessed with jazz just as Dad was putting it down.
We lived for a while in a modest rent house, and Dad's collection of 78 RPM records, complete in its own large stand-up chest, was placed in my bedroom as the house offered no other practical place for them.
So there I was, blue and lonely, 12 years old, nothing to console me except those old scratchy records. Gradually, they started coming to my aid.
The rest of the family was too busy to notice, but I escaped into Louis Armstrong records. Putting hard mileage on the already worn 78s, I memorized Louis' solos and riffs. Louis to the rescue. Bob Crosby was well-represented in the records as was the great Benny Goodman. Eventually, I discovered Bix.
My musical beginnings were certainly not normal. I wasn't in the Junior High Band and I didn't have a musical instrument of any kind. But I was submerged in this old jazz and was easily memorizing the work of the great masters. I'd go around all day whistling constantly to myself. Bix and his Gang were my companions. "Thou Swell," "Jazz Me Blues," "Ol' Man River," "Royal Garden Blues." I'd whistle the entire record: intros, ensembles, interludes, and solos.
One day I was absent-mindedly doing my whistling thing when my melody (or I should say, Bix's melody) caught my father's ear. "Hey!" he said, not realizing the source of my song, "That's pretty good! Maybe you should take up some kind of horn." That was all I needed. It was just a casual remark, and Dad wouldn't have dreamed he'd just helped set me on the jazz road. Oh, I thought, what an idea—a horn!
I started thinking that maybe I should get a trombone. It looked easy to me: for a lower note just shove the slide out a little more. But I never got a chance to find out about the trombone the hard way, as fate had placed an interesting antique cornet in my path. There it was in a pawn shop window. I had arrived there strictly by chance, and spotted it from a restaurant across the street. It drew me over like a magnet. I could have sooner ignored the Great Wall of China had it suddenly appeared across the street.
After several negotiating sessions with the pawn broker, I became the proud owner of a C. Bruno and Sons Bb cornet; approximate date of issue: 1905, price: $7.00. I bought a book, How to Play the Cornet, for $1.00.
So I was off. In one day I mastered the C scale, and on day two I was able to sort of render the song "Ja-Da." In about two more days I had ready the chorus of "Tin Roof Blues."
My father began to occasionally retrieve his clarinet from its almost-forgotten, lonely residence in the back bedroom closet. It had been patiently waiting there, behind out-of-date double-breasted dinner jackets and two-toned shoes, for its comeback. With a new and different kind of musical spark Dad gave practical suggestions and experimented with different harmonies to my crude attempts at melody.
After about a year of progress, and while attending Alamo Heights High, I formed a "kid's band." Dad would occasionally join us, playing a borrowed tenor saxophone as the clarinet chair was taken. Unlikely opportunities for employment began to come our way. We played some afternoons at the Alamo Heights Dairy Queen in return for a credit line against which burgers, milk shakes, sundaes, and other goodies would be drawn. A few times we played at school, in the halls or after lunch and for assemblies. Eventually we played for a few dances around town, some even at the San Antonio Country Club. At one point during these High School years, I decided it would be good for me to join the Alamo Heights High School Band, and I called the band director, Mr. Arsers. Enthusiastically, I described my progress, showed off my old, funny-looking cornet, and explained my interest in advancing my skills, learning to read music, etc.
Oh, was I disappointed! Mr. Arsers emphatically refused to let me join, citing a number of objections, mainly that I hadn't come up through the school district's music program. Undaunted, I waited two weeks and approached him again, but was rebuffed this time on grounds that my old cornet was silver-plated. The Alamo Heights Band contained only brass lacquered instruments!
Thus rejected, I went on to my next period class, choral singing (all along I was a member of the high school chorus) and the choral director, Mr. Greenlee, noticed my distress. I told my story about not being accepted by the band. "Why do you want to be in the band anyway?" he asked. "I'll teach you and in return you can be my errand boy."
So it went. I ran errands for Mr. Greenlee and he taught me, mostly on piano, about music theory—chords and scales and a lot of very useful stuff I would never have gotten in the band.
Fats Waller's words ring true: "One never knows, do one?"
Jim Cullum Sr. and Jim Cullum Jr. in 1973
During the 1940s, there were some 50 members of the proud Dallas jazz elite. Being of the next generation, I watched them gradually fall away. The last to go was the remarkable Bob McClendon, who was going strong well into his 80s. Handsome and dapper to the last, he continued to drum around town. All during the 1980s, Bob played twice-weekly at the Greenville Bar & Grill in Dallas and never failed to ignite the band and the crowd. Booze never did get to him like it did some of the others.
I enjoyed seeing him a number of times during his last four years. He had become a mellow reflection of the wild man he once had been. But he still had that laugh and spirit and would get that twinkle in his eye when he talked of the old days...like the time he was with Clyde McCoy's band and the musicians and band bus were assembled early one morning on the sidewalk just outside a hotel where they had worked and slept the night before. McClendon didn't show up at the pre-arranged time to load his drums on top of the bus.
Clyde, impatient and pacing up and down the sidewalk, sent a band member up to McClendon's room on the 6th floor with instructions to get the drums down there at once.
You can easily guess the outcome. McClendon was still asleep and sent word back to McCoy to relax or he'd place the drums "where the sun don't shine!" (He never could stand McCoy's corny trumpet playing anyway.) Of course, McCoy hit the ceiling and sent his messenger back with word to get those drums down there immediately or McClendon was fired. With that, McClendon, true to form, opened the window and heaved the drums out. As they crashed to the sidewalk six floors below and just down from where the band was waiting, they broke all to pieces. McCoy, the musicians, the bus driver, and a few passersby stood open-mouthed as McClendon, laughing, went back to bed and at least for a while entered the ranks of the unemployed. Crazy? No, the jazz disease!© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.