Jamie Cullum played his first paid gig in a hotel bar, so there’s a pleasing sense of circumnavigation to his current role as ambassador for the prestigious St. Regis hotel chain. Two decades and seven albums on from that teenage debut, Cullum has become one of Britain’s leading jazz aficionados: an award-winning artist, broadcaster and tastemaker; a man who is equally at home rocking out alongside the scene’s legends as he is championing its talented newbies with his BBC Radio 2 show, or partying with ‘death jazz’ musicians in Tokyo.
‘I really relish my St. Regis role,’ he says. ‘Not only do I get to travel to these wonderful cities and play these beautiful venues, but I also get to curate some of the hotel playlists, and put some really great artists into these public spaces.’
Founded in 1904, St. Regis has a proud, historic relationship with jazz and the scene’s evolving constellation of stars. This includes Cullum, who launched his 2014 album Interlude at the St. Regis in New York City, where the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie once rocked. And like those swinging legends, Cullum knows how to get a party going: footage from his recent St. Regis shows reveals a dapper, dynamic performer using the piano and his voice to maximum effect; not just serenading his intimate, cocktail-sipping audiences from the seated comfort of the piano stool but rousing them into life with a kinetic, jack-in-the-box energy—whooping, drumming, beatboxing.
When President Obama hosted an International Jazz Day concert at the White House earlier this year, Cullum was invited to play alongside the likes of Aretha Franklin and Chick Corea. When a minor security glitch (misreported by the UK press as a bomb scare, according to Cullum) caused a temporary break in the festivities, Cullum used the opportunity to quiz some of the event’s esteemed performers for his radio show.
His favorites? ‘Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Having the chance to sit and chat with two of the greatest living jazz musicians? I didn’t expect to get the chance to do that in my lifetime. I also really connected with [Grammy Award–winning performer] Esperanza Spalding. We’re around the same age. She’s wonderful, and part of the new generation who are really making an impact.’
Jazz may have originated in the US, but today’s pioneers can be found around the globe, as Cullum has discovered firsthand during sojourns around Asia. Among his favorites are explosive Japanese sextet Soil & ‘Pimp’ Sessions, who deal in a fusion style they’ve coined ‘death jazz.’ ‘We played a Halloween party together in Tokyo, which was one of the most fun nights of my life. I’ve noticed a real hunger for new music in Southeast Asia—especially music with a jazz flavor. I’ve felt very welcomed, which is great because it’s a relationship I’m enthusiastic about cultivating.’
Cullum has roots in the subcontinent via his mother, who came to the UK from Myanmar (then Burma) at the age of five, following the Japanese invasion during the 1940s. ‘I come from a background of refugees and immigrants who managed to make their lives work in the UK. It’s a heritage I’m very proud of. What’s interesting is that my generation—myself, my brother, my cousins—is more interested in looking into [our origins] than my parents were. They were taught to assimilate, to forget what came before. But I’ve been investigating it a great deal. I want to visit [Myanmar], and to make sure it’s part of my children’s lives.’
Given this lineage, Cullum has huge compassion for the refugees currently camped at Calais in northern France—desperate people fleeing war in Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Pakistan. He’s visited The Jungle, as it’s been coined, and used his Facebook page to advocate on behalf of these at-risk asylum seekers.
‘People go on about economic migrants, but I met many people there, many of them under the age of 15, who are fleeing death in countries and cities they did not want to leave—jobs, families and careers they didn’t want to leave. They are frightened, tired and hungry, and they need our help. Before I visited [Calais], I’d assumed they were getting that help, but actually, they’re receiving very little support. It is bitter there. I’m just trying to spread the word among the communities I move in. My wife, [author, socialite and ex-model] Sophie [Dahl], has been reporting on it too.’
Cullum and Dahl married in 2010, and have two young daughters, Margot and Lyra. While Cullum’s globetrotting career may have proved initially disruptive to family life, the foursome has managed to settle into a happy rhythm. ‘I don’t think I was very good at balancing work and home in the beginning, but I’m a lot better at it now. When you’re with your kids, you can’t be on your mobile, answering emails and thinking about what’s coming next. You have to really switch off. And when you’re working, you’re really working. I use that term loosely though, because music never feels like work.’
When at home with his family in the English countryside, Cullum can usually be found working the vegetable patch with his daughters or walking his dog. ‘I love home life, and I love being in nature. When the kids are at school, I’m usually in my studio, Terrified Studios the III. It’s my favorite space in the world.’ There, he reads (‘I have a ton of books’), puts together texts and Leica photography for his print periodical, The Eighty-Eight, and hosts his radio show.
On his radar at the moment are drummer Moses Boyd, vocalist Jasmine Power and GoGo Penguin, a band Cullum has championed for some time and that has just been signed to exalted jazz label Blue Note. ‘They’re all acts that have a great deal of modernity about them—they reference the past and the future, and have a certain Britishness about them too, which I think is really cool.’
Cullum is also busy with his own music, confirming that album number eight is ‘deep’ in the works. ‘I’m at a wonderful stage where I’m just making great music and not thinking about the shape of it yet. I’m just the kid in the toy shop on the trolley dash.’
Almost 20 years on from his 1999 debut, Heard It All Before, Cullum’s passionate, intuitive understanding of the jazz genre has only deepened. ‘You need a great deal of commitment and hard work to do it well, but then you have to couple that with a maverick sensibility, [to be] someone who loves to improvise, someone who loves jumping off the cliff into the unknown, someone who loves danger. You can apply that understanding to any genre—funk, pop, heavy metal, electro, hip-hop—because it feeds into all of it. Sure, you can lose a bit of your mojo sometimes, you can wake up on the wrong side of the bed, but the music always brings you back eventually.’
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Main image: Alamy
Body image: Alessandro Bosio/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News