music in his blood
Notably one of the most successful jazz artists in the UK, Jamie Cullum has sung his way to sell over 10 million albums worldwide, receiving multiple nominations for Grammy and Golden Globes along the way. Despite his small stature, the accomplished singer-songwriter has the charisma — and powerful vocal chords — to quieten a room with his voice, tinkling and improvising on the piano, turning the latest pop music into snazzy and modern jazz tunes.
Most recently in Singapore for the opening of St. Regis’ Jazz Legends series, the multi-faceted musician — he hosts a weekly radio talkshow on BBC Radio introducing everything to do with jazz, and plays the drums, bass and electric — tells us what he thinks about the jazz music industry, being labelled a ‘crossover’ artist, and drinking before a performance.
I started learning music to chase a girl I like. I thought it would be a much more effective way of impressing girls, but it became a passion for me. I tried to be like curt cobain and ACDC for a little bit, then I gravitated from the guitar to the piano.
When I was younger, I listened to Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Slayer, and Iron Maiden. If it sounds nuts, it’s because I really loved the musicianship in it. Then I started getting into hip hop. I lived near Bristol, there was a lot of hip hop appreciation there, which led to collecting records. It was the record-collecting culture that introduced me to jazz, in a backwards kind of way. I started fishing out Miles Davis’ records from the ‘70s. Then I went to Nat King Cole, and Herbie Hancock.
The best part of being an ambassador of St. Regis is being able to stay at all its hotels (laughs). It’s great to be able to find a nice hotel to stay, as musicians are always on the road. I also like that St. Regis is also keen on bringing live music back into these spaces.
I really look up to Wynton Marsalis. I was actually nervous about meeting him (ed’s note: They met on Cullum’s talkshow), but we got on really well. He inspired me so much I wanted to quit [music], go back to school, learn how to read music and start from the beginning.
I refrain from drinking from a lot of alcohol before I perform. (laughs and downs a shot of St. Regis’ signature Chilli Padi Mary). I’ll also try to get a lot more rest and water before [my performance]. And don’t party too much if you’ve a show the next day. The worst thing is going to a noisy bar and talking to a bunch of people. At first, you’ve the benefit of youth, where you can do anything to your body and be on stage the next day. Then the cracks start to show a little, and you’ve to protect and treat your body like an athelete would.
I find vocal health really interesting. I’ve done quite some research and I invented something to help singers. It’s like a cup with a steam pipe coming out of it. You can get steam straight to your vocal chords. I hope to make them and give them to singers one day.
My most memorable experience thus far was playing at the White House. I played at a concert during International Jazz Day, and not only did I get to meet President Obama and the first lady, Michelle, but I got to hang out with Aretha Franklin and Herbie Hancock.
I’ve no problem being called a crossover artist. It just means appealing to people who don’t usually listen to jazz, or pop. I’m a bit over feeling that ‘I’m not good enough to be here’. I know I’ve got something to say, and while I may not be the best piano player or singer, when you put it all together, you get me. You realise that all you can bring to the table is your own vibe, thoughts, and story. And that’s the thing that’s important.
I’d like to work with John Legend, although we might piano each other out. And, love him or loathe him, Kanye West is always doing something interesting. I think he has really open ears. He has a clear appreciation for music.
If I had to play one song for the rest of my life, it’ll probably be Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. I can’t play it yet, but I’ll learn. It’s a goal of mine to learn how to read music some day. I can learn by ear, but when you get a composition that’s written in a precise way, it’s important to learn to read music.