Jamie Cullum

Pop's new jazzman

emailEmail This Page emailPrint This Page
By Gary Graff  

Jamie Cullum's a hard guy to pin down. He plays jazz and sings pop standards. But before you start thinking Harry Connick, Jr. or Michael Buble, Cullum's just as likely to bust out something by Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead or the Doves. That's the result of a diverse background that includes lots of listening, club gigs, cruise ship jobs (where he wrote his song "All at Sea") and even a Russian strip club. (More on that later.)

Raised in the English countryside village of Maimesbury, Cullum eschewed formal training and taught himself to play guitar and sing. When he went off to Reading University, it was to major in English and film studies. But music was his calling, and Cullum kept himself busy drumming in rock bands and playing piano in supper clubs. His Jamie Cullum Trio recorded his first album, Heard it All Before, when he was nineteen, while a second release, Pointless Nostalgic, came out in 2002.

But Cullum really got attention with his first major label release, Twentysomething, in 2003, which he followed up two years later with Catching Tales.

Q: Did you have a musical upbringing?

Cullum: It was musical in the sense that we loved music, and my brother was a musician. But it wasn't like the Brady Bunch where everyone played and sang. We all just liked music.

Q: How did you become a musician?

Cullum: I kind of always played, really. I had a few lessons when I was younger, but it didn't really work out quite the way it should've. I kind of gave up and ended up back in, playing guitar when I was thirteen, fourteen. That was quite a turning point for me, learning Kurt Cobain songs, discovering Jimi Hendrix and Metallica, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, all the new grunge bands that were out at that time. Then I got into '70s funk and acid jazz, hip-hop and stuff. I wended my way back to the piano.

Q: Where does the more traditional jazz influence come from?

Cullum: My brother and I were so into our own music that we didn't get involved in listening to things too much. We had a few Sinatra records, and Stan Getz, but it wasn't like that's how we got it. It filtered into my existence through hip-hop, through acid jazz, through funk music. I discovered Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters and worked my way backwards. I heard some Harry Connick, bossa nova stuff. I liked the chords and the style and it gradually filtered into what I was playing.

Q: What was the appeal for you?

Cullum: One of the main reasons I'm involved in jazz is that it's not as confining as any other style. It's such a wide platform. You can incorporate all these other styles in the music. The term "jazz" is kind of misleading, in a way, because I think people relate to it as a particular kind of thing. So we try not to perpetuate that word too much or the idea that we're a jazz band too much. I don't want to come out like I'm a Rat Pack revivalist.

Q: So are you a jazz musician?

Cullum: It's an interesting question, isn't it? You're either a jazz musician or you're not. It's something you obviously spend a lot of time learning how to do. I think I'm absolutely a jazz musician. I just don't always play jazz.

Q: It sounds like you approach jazz more as a state of mind than as a style.

Cullum: Yeah. There's a lot of people who would disagree with that. The way I see it, I can play jazz, I know how to play jazz, but that doesn't always mean improvised piano solos over chords by John Coltrane, although you have to understand John Coltrane and those chords. Obviously there's a lot of people who view jazz in different ways. I don't think any album of mine is a cutting-edge jazz CD. Of course it isn't. But there's more jazz in the pop music I make than in some jazz music.

Q: What other kinds of bands have you played in?

Cullum: Wow -- I can't even begin to remember how many different bands I've been in. A lot of hard rock bands, punk bands, cover bands, wedding bands. I played "Car Wash" and Stevie Wonder songs and stuff. I was in a hip-hop band with a DJ for some time, drum-n-bass, dance, house kinds of things, all sorts of stuff. I was touring with a rock band when I cut my deal with Universal, playing Moog and Hammond organ.

Q: You did cruise ships as well, right? What was that like?

Cullum: Oh, it was a lot of fun. We didn't work much.  We had to play two hours a night, 'cause the clientele on the cruises were quite old and all in bed by 11 o'clock. Then we'd hit the town, whichever port we were in, and end up back in the boat at 8 in the a.m.

Q: And the Russian strip club?

Cullum: Ah. (laughs) It was off the cuff. It was just something that happened. Hey, I'll do any gig, man, if there's a piano!

Q: You went to college in the midst of all this.  Did you actually graduate?

Cullum: Oh, yeah, I did. I got a good degree. Of course, I haven't used the degree in any way at all. (laughs) I did a degree because it was fun. I wanted to party more and didn't want to get involved in the real work too quickly. I wanted to hang out and meet girls and enjoy myself. And I did.

Q: How did you wind up playing under your own name?

Cullum: It happened after I did a gig back at a local pub. I was playing piano solo. I wasn't singing at that point, just playing piano, standards I knew, for kind of a dinnery crowd. I ran out of songs I could play on the piano and the were calling for more. The only song I knew how to sing and play in a jazz style was something I nicked from Harry Connick, a New Orleans-style thing. It went down so well they asked me to stay. I came back every week, so I knew that kind of music could get me work, you know?

Q: Is there a difference in the way you approach standards versus your own songs?

Cullum: There's a funny dichotomy between covers, as people call them, and originals. To me, reinterpreting another song and writing a song are very similar exercises. Doing a standard in a new way is like writing a new song, in a way. I wanted to establish some kind of identity by doing a mixture of the two. But I've probably been writing my own songs longer than I've been doing other people's songs.

Q: What were your goals for Catching Tales?

Cullum: I was really pleased that it was a step up. It felt like a progression. It would've been very, very easy for me to make a Twentysomething, Volume 2, the same formula, the same amount of standards, maybe a Hendrix cover, a Who cover, a Rolling Stones cover, some Nick Drake songs. But that's obviously not what I wanted to do at all. I wanted to progress. I wanted to not lose anyone, but I wanted to move forward as a songwriter, a performer, a jazz interpreter.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.