Published January 14, 2015
MTV rarely covers jazz, but Jamie Cullum (search) is a different story.
A recent "You Hear It First" segment on MTV News included an enthusiastic thumbs-up from superproducer Pharrell Williams (search), who was so blown away by Cullum's jazz version of his hip-hop hit "Frontin"' that he pronounced the 24-year-old British singer-pianist "definitely our kind of people."
In Britain, the original new talent has enjoyed unexpected, Norah Jones-like success with his major label debut, "Twentysomething." (search) The CD has sold more than 1 million copies since its October release, making Cullum the top-selling British jazz artist ever. It was his first release under a million-pound recording deal with Universal that garnered tabloid headlines like "Who Wants to Be a Jazz Millionaire?"
Cullum, who infuses his jazz with punk, heavy metal and hip-hop influences, has now invaded America with a resequenced version of "Twentysomething" (Verve) and a monthlong tour. His CD has climbed to No. 2 on Billboard's contemporary jazz chart, right behind Norah Jones' "Feels Like Home."
While Cullum and Jones both cross genres and generations, Cullum says "the only similarities are the fact that we both play piano and we sing."
Jones is subtle and introverted, a well-schooled musician who blends jazz with soul, country, blues and folk. Cullum is precocious, extroverted, largely self-taught -- and in love with pop music.
"When I play jazz I try to imbue that kind of urgency and edginess of pop," Cullum told The Associated Press during an interview in the lounge bar of his midtown hotel, shortly before taping an appearance on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." (search)
"For me, jazz is the widest platform possible to do everything I want to do," Cullum said. "I can pull from so many camps when I'm playing jazz ... from rock 'n' roll, pop, hip-hop, dance and classical. When I was playing rock 'n' roll, it was much more rigid. ... In jazz, I can be different every night."
Cullum's CD hardly captures the excitement of his live performances. He is no "scooby-doo" style crooner, but more like "Scrappy Doo" -- energetic, feisty, risky, a 5-foot-4 bantamweight with spiky brown hair and the attitude of a punk rocker or hip-hopper.
His music isn't the only thing that sets him apart from retro, suit-wearing young jazz crooners like Peter Cincotti or Michael Buble. He shows up for an interview wearing a T-shirt, paint-speckled blue jeans and scruffy sneakers -- similar to what he wears on stage. Cullum says he gets so hot and sweaty while performing, he'd feel "too encumbered" in a suit.
He did make an exception last summer, donning a rented tuxedo for a private party at St. James' Palace in London marking the 50th anniversary of the queen's coronation, which was attended by Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles (search) and other royals.
"There was a pretty strict dress code and I didn't want to get my head cut off," Cullum laughed.
With vocals mixing the technique of jazz singers like Harry Connick Jr. (search) and Kurt Elling with the raw, gravelly tone of Kurt Cobain, Cullum shies away from crooning. "I like to sing those songs but I always associate crooning with an older person," he said.
Cullum opened a May set at Joe's Pub in Greenwich Village (search) standing on top of the piano as he launched into his opening number, Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out Of You." He then stood at the piano, pounding out the melody and slamming the keyboard with his foot to accentuate the word "kick." On "I Could Have Danced All Night," he slapped out the beat on the wooden piano frame and played inside the piano.
He may be shaking up the jazz scene, but in some ways Cullum is a throwback to an older, pre-bebop generation of jazz musicians who saw themselves as entertainers and embraced the popular music of their day. He cannot read music, relying more on his natural instincts.
"Jazz used to be about dancing, drinking and girls, but the first time I went to a jazz club all I saw were old men and no girls," said Cullum. "So what does a 17-year-old make of that?
"I'm not trying to change jazz," said Cullum. "I'm just trying to make music that I feel comfortable with ... and that I could relate to as a young man."
"Jazz is beautiful, melodic, catchy, cool music and it can be popular if it's just presented in a way that doesn't always try to pretend it's better than everything else."
Cullum, who grew up in rural England, comes from a musically inclined family, but never took to formal training. His biggest musical influence has been his brother Ben, a songwriter and dance music producer who now lives near him in London.
As a child, Cullum started on piano, but switched to guitar because he loved its powerful sound. When he got back to piano as a teenager, he was into loud, percussive boogie-woogie and rock 'n' roll piano.
Cullum, who played in grunge and hip-hop bands as a teenager, says he discovered jazz through the "back door."
Listening to heavy metal, he found himself drawn to the guitar solos, which led him to jazz instrumental solos. Then he discovered the jazz samples used by hip-hop bands such as A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy. As he got into songwriting, he found his role models such as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits talking about George Gershwin and Porter.
"These things kind of led me to buy my first Miles Davis record and then start seeking out some people singing standards," said Cullum.
When he was 16, Cullum began immersing himself more in jazz piano, but he didn't think seriously about a musical career until he attended the University of Reading, where he majored in English and film studies.
He earned money playing gigs everywhere from strip clubs to weddings and funerals, and at age 19 used his student loan money to cut a record, "Heard It All Before," to sell at shows. He sold his second record, "Pointless Nostalgic," to an independent jazz label, Candid. Its success -- along with major boost from the popular BBC TV talk show host Michael Parkinson -- helped Cullum net his big Universal/Verve deal.
Cullum says he isn't nervous about whether his success in Britain can translate to the American market.
"I think the U.S. audience seems to be responding to the eclecticism of the music quite well," said Cullum. "But my expectations when it comes to record sales are always zero. ... I just like playing music and I like to develop.
"Nothing's changed," he says, "whether it's playing in front of the queen or in front of 100 people at Joe's Pub."