Cullum, Jamie

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Cullum, Jamie

Singer, songwriter, pianist

An award-winning English singer/songwriter, song interpreter, and pianist, Jamie Cullum has become the most successful contemporary jazz artist in Britain. The fastest-selling jazz musician in British history, he is the first contributor to the genre to go platinum in the United Kingdom. His album Twentysomething, a work that includes both originals and covers, has sold more than a million copies in England and millions throughout the world. Dubbed "the heartthrob of jazz," "the David Beckham of jazz" (referring to the English soccer star), and "Sinatra in Sneakers" by the press, the diminutive, spike-haired Cullum is credited with helping to change the often sedate image of jazz through his crossover appeal, eclectic music, and exciting performances. Cullum's audience spans several generations: his fan base, which ranges from pre-teens to retirees, is composed of people who are often unfamiliar with jazz. Among the young, Cullum is regarded as a performer who makes it acceptable (and even hip) to enjoy this type of music. He is greeted with the kind of enthusiasm that usually is reserved for pop or rock stars. Cullum also is considered a pivotal figure among the new wave of young jazz artists, which includes figures like the American chanteuse Norah Jones (the daughter of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar), the English teen sensation Katie Melura, and the Canadian crooner Michael Buble.

High-Energy Jazz

Cullum has released five albums—Heard It All Before, Pointless Nostalgia, Twentysomething, the live extended player Twenty Zero Zero Five, and Catching Tales. These works are comprised of jazz standards, show tunes, covers of classic rock songs, covers of songs by contemporary artists, and original songs by Cullum and his older brother, Ben. The albums reflect Cullum's versatile taste in music, as well as his affection for rock, pop, hip hop, dance music, drums 'n' bass, classic jazz, and Broadway and movie scores. As a vocalist, Cullum sings in a midrange tenor with a sandpapery edge. He usually plays the piano in a light, rhythmic style. However, in performance Cullum treats his piano like a percussion instrument. He pummels it, taps out beats on the wood, plucks the strings, and turns over the bench. His live act mirrors the eclecticism of his albums while adding bits of showmanship: Cullum scats, sings a cappella, leads sing-a-longs, and sniffs after the line "I get no kick from cocaine" during Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You." Observers have noted the contrast between Cullum's act and the generally low-key nature of traditional jazz performances. In addition, they have commented on the musical treatment that he gives to his cover tunes. For example, Cullum recasts Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic rock song "The Wind Cries Mary" as a New Orleans-style gospel number and "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe's musical My Fair Lady as a thumping, club-friendly dance tune.

For the Record . . .

Born on August 20, 1979, in Hullavington, Wiltshire, England; son of John (a company executive) and Yvonne (a school secretary, choir director, and charity worker) Cullum. Education: Attended the University of Reading, Reading, England; degree in English literature, film, and drama, 2001.

Turned semi-professional by the age of 17; played in England and on the Continent before attending college; released first album independently, Heard It All Before, 1999; recommended by jazz artist Claire Teal to Alan Bates, head of Candid Records; released second album, Pointless Nostalgia, on Candid, 2002; performed on Parkinson television program and received airplay on BBC radio; performed for Queen Elizabeth, 2003; signed with Universal Music Group, 2003; played Royal Festival Hall in London, 2003; headlined in the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, New York City, 2003; released third album, Twentysomething, on Universal, 2004;first British jazz singer to go platinum in U.K., 2004; released live EP Twenty Zero Zero Five, 2005; played at Live 8 charity concert, 2005; on Verve label, released Catching Tales, 2005.

Awards: BBC Jazz Awards, Rising Star, 2003; More magazine, Mr. More (celebrity of the year), 2003; Radio 3 Jazz Awards, Best Newcomer, 2004; Shortlist Music Prize for Artist Achievement in Music, for Twentysomething, 2004; MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards, Best Jazz Act, 2004; Gentleman's Quarterlymagazine, GQ Awards, Best Solo Artist, 2004; BRIT Awards, Best British Live Act and Male Solo Artist, 2005.

Addresses: Record company—Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404; 1755 Broadway, New York, NY 10019, website: Website—Jamie Cullum Official Website:

Influences Led to Career Choice

Born in Wiltshire, England, Cullum grew up in the rural village of Hullavington, near the town of Malmesbury. His father, John, the son of Jewish refugees who came to England from Germany, and his mother, Yvonne, who is second-generation Burmese, performed together in a rock cover band. They also had an extensive record collection, to which they introduced their two sons. At the age of eight Jamie began taking piano lessons. He quit at eleven, after failing an exam, and began to explore other art forms. The works of American authors Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac influenced him greatly, as did films like The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). However, two events at the age of 13 helped shape Cullum as a musician: he received an electric guitar for his birthday, and he saw the American jazz singer Harry Connick Jr. in performance. At around this time, Ben Cullum began to take charge of his brother's musical tastes, bringing him albums by dynamic rockers the Who (whose "My Generation" he later would cover in live performance), heavy-metal act Iron Maiden, and rap pioneers Public Enemy. At 16, Jamie began to jam with Ben (now a recording artist, producer, and session musician) on their guitars, a period that Cullum claims made him take music seriously for the first time. Cullum became especially interested in American grunge bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden; at the same time, as he told an interviewer in Now!, he realized that "jazz seemed to be the only sophisticated way to gain attention from the opposite sex." This, along with his introduction to jazz artists like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, and Art Tatum, rekindled his interest in the piano. In 1997 Cullum attended the Glastonbury Festival, an outdoor rock show in England. Here, he was thrilled by the music of Radiohead, an English progressive-rock band that he now considers his favorite group of all time. After that experience, Cullum decided to take a year off from school to concentrate exclusively on music.

A Young Record-Breaker

At 18, Cullum went to Paris. He spent a year playing in bars and clubs there and throughout the Continent. After returning to England, Cullum entered the University of Reading, where he majored in English literature, film, and drama, while continuing to play music on the Wiltshire jazz circuit. While at school, he began composing and performing music for plays and films, and also did some acting and producing. In addition, he played in rock, hip hop, and techno bands and performed at weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs, as well as in strip clubs and on cruise ships. He played keyboards in Taxi, a rock group that opened for English singer/songwriter Paul Weller in London's Hyde Park, and played with English alternative-rock band Coldplay early in their career. Cullum used the money from his student loan to record his first album, Heard It All Before, with the Jamie Cullum Trio (Cullum, Raph Mizrahi on bass, and Julian Jackson on drums). This album, which was released independently in 1999, was acquired by English jazz singer Claire Teal and brought to the attention of Alan Bates, the head of Candid Records, a UK jazz label. Bates signed Cullum, who moved to London after graduating from the University of Reading in 2001. His next album, Pointless Nostalgia, featured a new rhythm section, with bassist Geoff Gascoyne and drummer Sebastian de Krom, as well as a horn section. Within weeks of the record's release in 2002, Cullum was involved in a bidding war among several major labels. He signed to Universal for a million pounds, the biggest contract in the history of British jazz. In addition, the label pledged another million for publicity, hiring separate teams for the pop and jazz/classical markets. The label released Twenty-something, which also featured Gascoyne and de Krom, in 2003.

"Who Cares about Labels?"

Reviewers have generally responded favorably to Cullum's albums. Those familiar with Heard It All Before have stated that it showcases Cullum's talents for putting his own spin on standards and experimenting with a variety of rhythms. Pointless Nostalgia includes the tongue-in-cheek original song "I Want to Be a Popstar," and the first version of Radiohead's "High and Dry," which also appears on Twentysomething. Writing in Jazz UK, Duncan Heining called the album "a remarkably accomplished debut." Twentysomething was produced in analog format by Stewart Levine, an American who has worked with blues and jazz artists such as B.B. King and George Benson. On the title track of the album, Cullum characterizes post-college life: his narrator, deeply in debt from student loans, discovers that he hasn't learned anything useful from his studies. Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times called Cullum's song "a whimsical but insightful anthem to his generation." "All at Sea," a song that Cullum wrote about the loneliness that he felt while working on a cruise line, is "a spry, elegant confessional that could go toe to toe with any winsome radio track by David Gray or John Mayer," according to Joan Anderman of the Boston Globe. Writing in Jazzwise about Twenty-something, A. Corbett concluded, "Who cares about labels if you love good music. Mr. Cullum sure knows how to produce it."

Played for the Queen

Since becoming a professional musician, Cullum's life has taken on a storybook quality. After Prince Charles saw his appearance on Parkinson, a television program hosted by interviewer Michael Parkinson, he asked Cullum to perform at a birthday party for Queen Elizabeth at St. James Palace in May of 2003; after Cullum's set, the Queen described his performance as "magical." In New York City Cullum became the first white European to headline at the Oak Room, a prestigious venue at the Algonquin Hotel. In 2004 Cullum played at a fundraising dinner for the Labour Party at the invitation of Prime Minister Tony Blair. He also performed at the Glastonbury Festival, where he had heard Radiohead's performance seven years earlier. The Cullum brothers provided the musical score for When Harry Met Sally, a play based on the 1989 film. In Austin, Texas, Jamie played with Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes and N*E*R*D, whose rap tune "Frontin'" he covered on Twentysomething. After this performance, Williams—a producer as well as a recording artist—offered to work with Cullum. The young pianist also joined Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Al Green, and other performers in a tribute to Ray Charles in Los Angeles. His cover of the Robert Knight song "Everlasting Love," which appeared in the film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), became a successful single. Cullum has played several benefits for charity, including Live 8, which took place in July of 2005. In the same year, multi-instrumentalist Sam Wedgwood joined Cullum, Gascoyne, and de Krom, and the group has plans for a new album, to be produced by Stewart Levine.

As Rare as a Hot January

Most critics have praised Cullum's musical talents and engaging stage presence. They also have acknowledged his effect on jazz, especially his ability to blend it with other musical genres and bring it to a more diverse audience. Although Cullum has been highly regarded as a pop/jazz crossover act, some hardcore jazz aficionados have criticized his credentials, his instrumental and vocal abilities, and his frenzied performances, as well as the marketing push behind him. Writing in the Independent, Sue Wilson commented, "Besides his effervescent personality and performance style, it's the way that Cullum's uncontrived eagerness and evident enjoyment feed into his music that explains his rapid success, combining as they do with a thorough understanding of vintage jazz idioms and the Great American Songbook." A writer in the New York Observer said, "For now, there is no one like him. ... A talent this size comes along as rarely as a hot January." Gaynor Pengelly of Icons predicted that there "can be little doubt that Jamie Cullum will one day be right up there with his idols." In assessing his career, Cullum told Neil Crossley of Korg Magazine, "I always point out that in no way does our music sound harmonically, melodically, or rhythmically like the great jazz masters. But what I'm doing is using my Nirvana and my guitar music and dance music and just trying to sound like a 24-year-old playing jazz in the 21st century.... And for me, this is just new music that I'm still just discovering." He told Tom Bishop of Celfax, "The thing that I desperately want in the whole world is to be an amazing musician. That's going to take my whole life."

Selected discography

(With the Jamie Cullum Trio) Heard It All Before, independent release, 1999.

Pointless Nostalgia, Candid Records, 2002.

Twentysomething, Universal, 2004.

Twenty Zero Zero Five (live EP), Universal, 2005.

Catching Tales, Verve, 2005.



Boston Globe, January 23, 2004.

Celfax, January 8, 2004.

Hollywood Reporter, January 13, 2004.

Icons, Spring 2004.

Independent (London, England), February 27, 2004.

Jazz UK, 2003.

Jazzwise, February 2004.

Korg Magazine, summer 2004.

Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2004.

New York Observer, October 2003.

Now!, February 25, 2005.


Jamie Cullum Official Website, (June 26, 2005).

—Gerard J. Senick