Stanford Libraries acquire Jim Cullum's 'Riverwalk Jazz' archives

Stanford's Archive of Recorded Sound will begin streaming the jazz maestro's radio programs in January 2013.

Courtesy of Riverwalk Jazz Radio

An excerpt from a recording for the Public Radio series 'Riverwalk Jazz,' featuring the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and guests - singer Catherine Russell and pianist Dick Hyman, Pearl Stable, San Antonio, Texas, May 2010.

Now and then, a great jazz performer or band makes a splash on the American musical landscape, keeping the nation's indigenous musical genre alive and popping. But a few maestros have gone light years beyond that, building over decades to create jazz empires.

Jim Cullum, musician and radio host, is one of them. His program, Riverwalk Jazz, now in its 22nd season, is distributed by Public Radio International (PRI) and heard on stations in more than 200 cities across North America. "Riverwalk Jazz has, since its debut in 1989, been one of the finest of all jazz radio series," said Los Angeles Times critic Scott Yanow.

Now Stanford will acquire Riverwalk's archives, including the 400 radio programs and a 700-page website with audio and video, under the aegis of the Stanford University Libraries and its celebrated Archive of Recorded Sound.

Moreover, in January 2013, the Archive of Recorded Sound will offer Riverwalk Jazz on its website with a continuous stream of all Riverwalk's programs, which include documentaries on the history of jazz from its earliest beginnings until about 1950. "Nothing like this is available anywhere else," said Margaret Moos Pick, executive producer of Riverwalk Jazz.

The acquisition consolidates Stanford's reputation for considerable clout in jazz. In a sense, the Cullum partnership with the Stanford University Libraries was born at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, where Cullum taught, and played the cornet, for a dozen years.

Jennifer Whitney Jim Cullum performing

Jim Cullum, who has played with his Jim Cullum Jazz Band for 50 years, taught himself to play the cornet as a teenager.

Cullum and his 50-year-old Jim Cullum Jazz Band, which plays swinging traditional hot jazz, were resident teachers and performers for more than a decade and "contributed to the vibrancy of the program," said Jim Nadel, director and founder of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the nonprofit that produces the summer Jazz Camp and Jazz Residency programs, as well as the Stanford Jazz Festival. Nadel described Cullum as an "upbeat guy, and also a great leader."

Noting that the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound already has the recordings of the Monterey Jazz Festival, he said that the new donation raises its stature as an important jazz archive.

Jazz in his blood

Cullum's connection to jazz is almost genetic. The San Antonio-born musician is the son of a prominent jazz musician, Jim Cullum, Sr.

"My parents were jazz crazy. Their stories are manic and full of the music," Cullum said. His father, a clarinetist, played with such major jazz figures as Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden in the 1940s.

Though Cullum, who turns 70 this month, was initially attracted to the trombone, he caught sight of an antique cornet in a window as a young teenager. Love at first sight. He bought a used cornet for $8 and an instruction book for $1, and taught himself to play the instrument. 

"He started out from birth immersed in the music," said Nadel. "So that gives him sort of a special status. Music is open – you never master it. You can continue growing as long as you want to practice and pursue it."

Jim Cullum Sr. died in 1973. "He had a great life in music," said his son. In addition to playing music, however, "He also realized that what we were doing was unusual. He would save everything. Every photo, every newspaper clipping."

Cullum continued the family penchant for collecting. From one perspective, his first act of preservation was the choice of music itself, a brand of jazz that reinvigorated "the early jazz and swing music of the pre-bebop days." That is the mandate of his seven-piece acoustic ensemble, with its historically accurate instruments.

His interest in conserving – even from the early days – was indicative of his academic training: he studied history at Trinity University.

Jamie Karutz Jim Cullum Jazz Band members on stage

From left: Mike Pittsley, trombone; Howard Elkins, guitar; Jim Cullum, cornet; Ron Hockett, clarinet

But is it also an indication of his musical bent? Jazz is always a balance between the mind and the heart – but Cullum is not primarily a man of the head. "I think Jim Cullum's approach is very melodic. He sings through the cornet. He plays from his heart," said Nadel. "He also has extraordinary technique and facility and is always melodic and accessible."

Riverwalk Jazz was created in 1989 as part of Texas Public Radio, eventually expanding to a 52-week hourly series. Its documentary programs became important keepers of jazz history, according to renowned jazz writer Nat Hentoff. It expanded to XM Sirius satellite radio and Sprint cellphone content delivery, as well as a website, Facebook and Twitter.

In the last decade, it also developed an education outreach curriculum for children.

Clearly, Cullum had become one of the great conservators of jazz. But like all conservators, he began to wonder where the treasure would eventually wind up. "In this rapidly changing arena of recorded sound, I became fascinated with the idea of streaming our programs for the world to hear for decades to come on the web," he said. Given his interests in jazz education, he sought an educational rather than a commercial venue.

The Stanford Jazz residency helped make the decision: "I gained not only an affection for Stanford, but met a lot of people there," he said. Some of his father's archives are already housed at Stanford.

But mostly the choice was based on the reputation of the Stanford University Libraries and its Archive of Recorded Sound. "The Stanford libraries and the Archive of Recorded Sound, to put it in musicians' terms, 'have the most chops,' " Cullum said.

"It was the greatest repository for it that I could envision. I hope a lot of people around the world will be able to listen to it when we stream it."

For Cullum, it's part of the effort to change lives with sound: "Some of the early jazz is so beautifully conceived and executed, it can become a real stimulus in one's life – and make a difference in one's life," he said. "It can become an energy."

To drive home his point, Cullum recalled attending last month's Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa. He was the oldest person in a hotel room full of "beautiful kids, some of them musicians, some of them jazz fanatics."

He played old 78 rpm records of jazz, circa 1925 to the mid-30s. "Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson – one cut after another. When the records were on, they were completely silent, on Cloud 9."

"It transcends all generations. A beautiful thing is always a beautiful thing," he said.  "There's a beauty there that most young Americans are unaware of. To learn of it is valuable, and it can mean a lot to people's lives."

"It doesn't have to be cool. It doesn't have to be the latest thing – just go with it and see what's there. Jazz can do it to you."

Margaret Moos Pick, Riverwalk Jazz: (707) 778-0339,

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,