x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

And all that jazz

Profile Jamie Cullum is a trouper of a jazz musician - so much so that he'll play with a broken nose.

During his college days, the jazz musician Jamie Cullum played in rock and pop bands, but always felt frustrated at having to stick to the tune.
During his college days, the jazz musician Jamie Cullum played in rock and pop bands, but always felt frustrated at having to stick to the tune.

Jamie Cullum is feeling pretty silly. A bizarre accident in his hotel room has left him with a broken nose and two rapidly blackening eyes and he's going on stage in about 40 minutes. He shakes hands politely and apologises for his battered appearance. The bruising and the plaster over stitches in his nose makes him look less angelic than usual, more like a rock star than a jazz musician. He explains that he flew in the previous evening to play at the launch of the new Boutique 1 fashion store on Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Walk and took the opportunity of having an early night.

"I woke up at about 3.30am and was going to the toilet when I just slipped and came crashing down on the coffee table. At night-time you aren't really taking in what's going on. I was dizzy for about 20 seconds and just lay there bleeding most profusely while the lights were still off. I wandered around trying to find the bathroom light switch and in the process I put bloody hand prints all over the wall. It was like a scene from a horror film, quite amusing really."

Not wanting to bother his manager, the 29-year-old jazz pianist simply called the concierge at the Tamani Hotel and asked if he could bring him some ice. "I just cleaned up the wound, got the blood off the walls and lay there till morning putting ice on it. I'm not really a fuss pot but I rang my manager in the morning and said, 'Don't worry, I've injured myself and I should probably go to the hospital. It won't stop bleeding.'" So instead of heading for the new Atlantis waterpark to have some fun as planned, he spent four hours in a hospital being stitched up. There was no question of calling off the show in the grounds of the Ritz Carlton, Dubai. Cullum's a trouper of "the show must go on" mould.

"The main problem is I don't want the stitches to come loose. They're inside and on top and I don't want to open my mouth too wide. I rang my girlfriend to tell her about it and she was horrified. I don't like worrying people so I didn't send her a picture," he laughs ruefully. His girlfriend is the statuesque blonde model Sophie Dahl, the granddaughter of Roald Dahl, the children's author. The fact that they are dating is not a secret but Cullum doesn't like to dwell on his private life, although he says he definitely wants to get married and have children some day. "Yes I'd love to," he says. "I'd love to do all those things. I'm very much a live by the day kind of person and I'm positive that will happen some day." "I try to keep my personal details personal, not because I'm particularly private. I just don't think it's necessary to share it. I'm not a tabloid figure. I'm a musician and I'm not going to trendy nightclubs. I go to gigs and jam sessions and hang out at friends' houses. I have a nice group of people that I know and trust and I'm just like anyone else.

"I don't get bothered when I go home to Swindon. The good thing about going home is that you go to the same places you have been going for 25 years and people just say 'Oh, there he is'." He's expecting a ragging from his friends about his fall and says he can't even blame over indulgence for it. "It would be slightly less embarrassing but I was totally within my faculties so I have no excuse. This weekend I'll be with my friends and they will be laughing at my injuries."

He is known for his exuberant style of entertaining and he often jumps onto the piano, so injury is always a possibility. He occasionally comes offstage with bleeding hands. "But you can't walk around worrying about it," he says. "One of my first well-paid gigs before I was signed was on the cruise ship Minerva and our first trip was through the Bay of Biscay. It was very rough and the first night was the captain's reception. It was imperative that the band was there and I felt so sea sick. I just thought the show must go on. I was fine when I was singing and playing and then we got to a drum solo in the tune Tea for Two. I couldn't play so I nipped backstage, vomited, cleaned up and got back as the solo was ending."

Apart from declining apologetically to have a close-up portrait taken to accompany this interview, he says the injuries won't affect his work. "Luckily, I have nothing on in the next few weeks that would have to be cancelled. If I had been doing an album cover or something it would have had to be cancelled unless I had been doing some sort of Raging Bull homage." Cullum recently took time off touring to do other work that interested him, including some experimental work with his brother Ben, 33, also a talented musician. The brothers formed a band called BC versus JC and headed off to Barcelona during the summer to play at the progressive Sonar music festival. "We had great fun playing to 6,000 clubbers, just improvising music for two hours."

He says there is no sibling rivalry. "His success is my success and my success is his success. He's not naturally someone who would come to the front of things, although his musical talent often brings him there. He writes for all sorts of people, he plays in bands and we're talking about him joining my band. I haven't asked him yet. We'll see what his fee is." He's currently finishing off a new album that will be released in the spring and describes it as "more courageous" than anything he has done before. "It's definitely a Jamie Cullum album but it's moved on a lot and has a noisier and younger sound. I think it's because I'm a much more confident human being. I haven't been frightened to make it sound sonically much more part of the 21st century. So although it's definitely a jazz record, it's got horns on it, and big bands, it's a got the swing feel and acoustic base and it's a summation of everything I'm into."

Cullum was born in Essex and educated at a fee-paying school in Wiltshire, followed by the University of Reading, where he read English literature, film, and drama. His mother, Yvonne, is of Anglo-Burmese descent and his father, John Cullum, worked in finance. "My mum has a wonderful voice and sings in a choir and Dad plays three chords on a guitar and Roy Orbison songs." His "cultural icon" was his paternal grandmother, Omi, a Jewish refugee from Prussia who sang in Berlin nightclubs. "She died eight years ago. She was a real intellectual figurehead with a real thirst for knowledge. She had a very tough life. She was a Jew who escaped the Holocaust and lost most of her family in the process. Well into her seventies, she was a member of Mensa and going to literary workshops about Toni Morrison and James Joyce."

During his college days, Cullum played in rock and pop bands, but always felt frustrated at having to stick to the tune. "I chose jazz because of this need and want for freedom. When I discovered jazz, I realised there was this whole sort of area where you could walk about and stretch your legs. It takes an incredible lot of musicianship to be able to play it all. Then you have to forget it and become a child again. It was a platform for me to go where I wanted to go."

He released his first album, Heard It All Before, in 1999. Only 500 copies were made and it became such a rarity that it can sell for as much as £600 (Dh3,448) on eBay. His second album, Pointless Nostalgic, caught the interest of Michael Parkinson, the British television chat show host and jazz lover. Cullum's career really took off after his appearance on Parkinson. In April 2003, he signed a contract for three albums with Universal, who beat Sony in a bidding war. His third album, Twentysomething, went platinum and became the biggest selling studio album by a jazz artist in the United Kingdom.

"Mike Parkinson wasn't the first person to play me on the radio but he was definitely the highest profile. Of course, immediately, you are exposed to millions of people who trust his judgement. If he says someone's great, people tend to believe him. He's just a nice guy to know outside the business. We have lunches together and have a good laugh, talk cricket and football. He went to see his home team play my home team Swindon town with my dad. He's a very cool man and fun to hang out with."

Hanging out with celebrities is something he's getting used to, but he admits he still gets star-struck, especially when someone like Clint Eastwood asks him to write a song for his latest movie, Gran Torino, about a former Dirty Harry type character coming to terms with the people in his area. "He's a big jazz fan and I met him at jazz festivals and went to his house to hang out. It was really cool. He is such a natural lovely person that within seconds he has put you totally at ease, but that's as star-struck as you can get. When I met Herbie Hancock, I was totally floored and it was the same when I met Neil Young, Brian Wilson and Prince.

"I don't feel famous," he continues. "I do feel a sense of satisfaction when I play with great musicians. That's the reason I work so hard, so that if I get into that sort of situation, I don't feel out of my depth. I can sit down and jam with people like Medeski Martin and Wood, the American jazz trio. I met them in Japan and they were very supportive and excited. I was happy that they could keep it together musically because I am such an admirer of their work.

"When I was younger, if someone like Clint asked me to write a song, I would have panicked. Now, I rise to the occasion." His musical heroes are those who have stayed the course: Nick Cave, Herbie Hancock, Ben Folds, Giles Peterson, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and he throws in Elgar and The Beatles for good measure. "The challenge in this day and age as a musician is to become someone who has the staying power. Jazz people by the nature of what they do have long careers because they are seeking out a certain musical nirvana. If people can sense that, they tend to come along for the ride. They are drawn to the authenticity of it, maybe not in the millions that you get if you are a starlet, but you get a core group of fans which means you can tour. You don't have to have an album out to tour."

His success has brought him financial security but he doesn't throw his money around. His main extravagance is a permanently rented studio where he can make music in his own time, a Yamaha grand piano and a treasured collection of vinyl records. "I spend a lot of time on eBay looking at old instruments. I buy pump organs from old ladies for £50 (Dh287) and old Hammond organs and pianos and keyboards and guitars. I bought myself a nice flat and go on nice holidays but I'm not into property buying. I don't have that level of ambition and having to manage a property empire presents a bit of a headache. I'm living a nice life, it's good to be able to be generous to my friends and family. I have a sponsorship deal with Audi, so I don't need to buy a car."

Cullum excuses himself politely. He has to perform in 10 minutes, wearing sunglasses to hide his injuries. He hasn't decided what he's going to play. He seldom does until he catches the mood of the audience. "I'll just walk out and decide there and then. I don't know if it will be noisy out there, or if people will be listening. The smokey nightclub thing is a bit of a cliché. I try to be as little like wallpaper jazz as possible. I want people to sit up and listen."
pkennedy@thenational.ae