All that jazz on San Antonio’s River Walk

jim-cullum-riverwalk-entranceWant to catch some classic jazz on San Antonio‘s lively River Walk (Paseo del Rio?)

You can’t do much better than an evening at Jim Cullum’s Landing,  housed in the Hyatt Regency next to the spring-fed San Antonio River. (Update – he no longer plays there, but does still have standing gigs around town. Here is the Jim Cullum Jazz Band schedule.)

The Landing opened in 1963,  one of the very first businesses next to a revitalized River Walk (now a city park.) Cornet-playing Jim Cullum and his band are on the stage almost every Tuesday through Saturday starting at 8 pm.

For a taste of their acoustic, ensemble performances, you can also listen in to their National Public Radio show, Riverwalk Jazz.  They’re also on Facebook.

The shows are themed — the night I visited was a New Orleans Stomp, with songs like the early 1900’s “Ballin’ the Jack,”  Louis Armstrong’s “Put ‘Em Down Blues,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Pep” and a fabulous jazzy version of one of my favorites (normally a Western swing hit) “Corinne, Corrina,” performed for the first time in 1928.

The Band’s Web site says:

“The core of the band’s music consists of the sounds of Jelly Roll Morton, Original Dixieland Jazz Band, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet, as well as a heavy emphasis on Bix Beiderbecke and his followers (e.g., Hoagy Carmichael)….Leader Jim Cullum plays a cornet (instead of the trumpet or flugelhorn used in modern jazz), which was the instrument preferred by early jazz masters King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.”

jim-cullum-riverwalk-jazz-ensemble-with-chloeThe band is an unassuming-looking group of older white gents — a gaggle of Grandpas taking the stage — but their superb musicianship, ribald sense of humor and professionalism is apparent from the first note.   Lanky clarinetist Ron Hockett looks like a banker who wandered into the club by mistake, until his beautiful long fingers start flying on his instrument.  Jim Cullum himself may be wearing nice pinstripes, a bowtie and carefully polished shoes, but he can rock the house on that cornet.

Sometimes there are guest players — the night I went, a 16-year-old girl named Chloe blew us all away with virtuoso performances on her clarinet and sax.  She comes to San Antonio every year to study with Ron Hockett for a few weeks.

The lively Landing audience is a good mix of ages, ethnic groups and dress; you can go casual or in modified Jazz Club Dress-Up, but don’t talk too loudly during the show or Jim kinda gives you the Evil Eye.

Jim Cullum and Louis Armstrong (photo courtesy Jim Cullum)Bassist Don Mopsick, who  “plays an antique German double bass set-up with gut strings and high action in the manner of the pre-amplified era” (and is also the Band’s Webmaster) told me that they’ve had lots of marriage proposals, particularly up in the Landing’s balcony tables.

“There was one proposal when he put the ring into a martini,” he said. “Nope, she didn’t swallow it, and she said Yes.”

The only downside to the venue is the food. The menu is about 2/3 cocktails (not that there’s anything wrong with that in a jazz club!) but food options are pretty limited. Dishes are tasty, but very salty and spicy, I guess to sell more of those cocktails.  Eat elsewhere and THEN go to the Landing.

There’s a lot of touristy hype about the River Walk. Sometimes it can seem like a rather crowded carnival of people with fanny packs, but just when you start to think you’re wasting your time at Paseo del Rio, a classy joint like Jim Cullum’s Landing will restore your faith in marvelous San Antonio.

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