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Musician Jamie Cullum, Cheltenham Jazz Festival

PUBLISHED: 23:27 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum may not be appearing at Cheltenham Jazz Festival this year: he's too busy finishing his latest album. But that doesn't mean to say he won't be there... He tells Cotswold Life why Cheltenham really is the best (and he's not just s...

Jamie, you're a self-professed fan of Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Why is it so good?


The festival is local to where I grew up - but I don't think it's the best jazz festival in the UK for that reason! It's one of the most forward-thinking in the world because it brings together classic and new jazz; it commissions young artists to do new things; it's useful and exciting.


The unique thing about Cheltenham is the way it brings in this whole kind of 'club jazz' atmosphere. When I say 'club', I don't mean smoky basement jazz clubs that you see in '50s Hollywood movies; I mean the kind of clubs people my age go to. Not stuffy sit-down-and-clap quietly jazz, but have-a-good-time jazz. Jazz you can dance to; jazz you can expand your mind to; jazz you can party to. It proves that jazz isn't just for scratching your beard to, and Cheltenham epitomizes that. The funny, posh little town of Cheltenham goes a bit crazy for a few days.


So jazz is about freedom...


It was born in the period of black history that was enslavement, and it became synonymous with the freedom they got. I think the cool thing about jazz is that, once you get into it, it's fun; but also you have to study to get to a certain level. So it combines two very empowering things - education and 'losing it'. Those two things don't always go hand in hand, but in jazz they do. Jazz musicians tend to be quite mad people but also quite enlightened. I'm not so conceited as to include myself in that! I just mean that I've met some quite amazing people through jazz.


You've been both on stage and in the audience at Cheltenham...


I played the Daffodil [restaurant in Suffolk Parade]; and then I ended up playing the town hall a couple of years later. [Jamie's 2004 concert was the fastest sell-out ever at the jazz festival.]


Then last year, I wasn't playing at all. Me and three friends came down for four days, and went to loads of gigs; hung out in the clubs, the bars, and had a great time - it was brilliant. This year I am deep into finishing my new album, which should be out at the end of summer/early autumn, but I'm going to pop down for one of the days.


Come on - tell us which day!


Actually, there's such good stuff on, it's not fair; I wish I could go to all of it. But I'll be going on the Sunday when there are some great people playing, including Jack Dejohnette


- a real jazz legend. He's a drummer who used to play with Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. And also there's a trumpet player from Norway, who's pretty much one of the most extraordinary musicians of all time, called Arve Henriksen. Before now, I've travelled vast distances to see them both play.



What got you into jazz?


I played all types of music in all types of bands when I was growing up - rock, pop, hip hop - but when I finally discovered and started playing jazz, I realized it was such a big springboard: the basis of jazz is in using that spirit of improvisation to take you wherever you want to go.


Were you encouraged at school?


I went to Grittleton House [near Malmesbury], which was a great school. I think it's changed a lot now but, when I was there, there was no big music programme - no big 'anything' programme! It was a good all-round school that encouraged you to do what you wanted to do. In some ways, that's probably why I ended up doing music: because my parents didn't make me; my school didn't make me; I found it myself.


Becoming a jazz musician wasn't an obvious way to find success...


Well, of course, that was never my modus operandi. I was just having a laugh playing music; I didn't think I was going to be anything like the commercial success I am. As far as success is concerned, I don't think there are any rules any more. Because it's so easy to get hold of music, you do what you love and, hopefully, people will come to you because they see something true and real. I honestly think it's more difficult to be a fake these days.


Are your family musical?


Yes, they're all kind of musical people. My grandmother was rumoured to have made the time go by during the wars, as a Jewish refugee, in clubs singing with a friend of hers: that's part of our family folklore.


You read English literature at university - any literary influences on your music?



I've just discovered a Spanish author called Roberto Bolao who I'm reading a lot of at the moment; his writing is inspiring me. And of course, as a teenager I was really into the Beat Poets, as most young teens are. There's a lot to be inspired by in their work.



Is that an age that you should have been born in?


I think I could have been a child of the late '60s when rock and roll was really exploding. I also would like to have been at the dawn of time so I could tell everyone how the hell it all happened! But apart from that, I do think - as difficult as the age we live in is - now is the only place I want to be. I'm a child of the 21st century.


So where is jazz in the 21st century?


Jazz is in the healthiest place it's ever been in. You can now actually study jazz - your Charlie Parkers would never have believed that! There are more jazz musicians than ever before; and so many good young musicians out there, it's frightening. We've just got to ensure we don't get to the stage where there are more people playing it than listening to it.


Because of the way music is being consumed nowadays, boundaries are getting smaller. Is that a good thing?


It's a great thing. People are listening to the Beatles, then Metallica, Brahms, and Herbie Hancock. A few years ago, music was defined by what was on the telly or the radio; now the only limit is your imagination. People are discovering a bit of Miles Davis; they like a bit of Red Hot Chili Peppers; they like a bit of Bach - there's no limit. It's easier to get hold of this stuff, so you don't have to like just pop or just rock - you can like all kinds of things.


Do you worry about problems in the music industry?


The music that's being made now is of as great a vintage as any era. I see no reason to be downbeat. The only problems are with the way we sell the music; we have to find a way of making sure everyone who works on the music gets what they deserve from it. Maybe people aren't getting as rich as they used to, but maybe that's a good thing. You shouldn't do music to get rich; you should do it because you love it.


Would you recommend Cheltenham's festival to someone new to jazz?


Definitely. I think jazz is something that works so well live. It's hard if you've never heard it before to fall directly in love with it from a recorded music point of view. Going out to see it live, seeing the interplay between the musicians, seeing the music happen in front of your eyes: that's an amazing thing. And that's the best way to fall in love with it.


You can find out more about Jamie from www.jamiecullum.com


Jamie, you're a self-professed fan of Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Why is it so good?


The festival is local to where I grew up - but I don't think it's the best jazz festival in the UK for that reason! It's one of the most forward-thinking in the world because it brings together classic and new jazz; it commissions young artists to do new things; it's useful and exciting.


The unique thing about Cheltenham is the way it brings in this whole kind of 'club jazz' atmosphere. When I say 'club', I don't mean smoky basement jazz clubs that you see in '50s Hollywood movies; I mean the kind of clubs people my age go to. Not stuffy sit-down-and-clap quietly jazz, but have-a-good-time jazz. Jazz you can dance to; jazz you can expand your mind to; jazz you can party to. It proves that jazz isn't just for scratching your beard to, and Cheltenham epitomizes that. The funny, posh little town of Cheltenham goes a bit crazy for a few days.


So jazz is about freedom...


It was born in the period of black history that was enslavement, and it became synonymous with the freedom they got. I think the cool thing about jazz is that, once you get into it, it's fun; but also you have to study to get to a certain level. So it combines two very empowering things - education and 'losing it'. Those two things don't always go hand in hand, but in jazz they do. Jazz musicians tend to be quite mad people but also quite enlightened. I'm not so conceited as to include myself in that! I just mean that I've met some quite amazing people through jazz.


You've been both on stage and in the audience at Cheltenham...


I played the Daffodil [restaurant in Suffolk Parade]; and then I ended up playing the town hall a couple of years later. [Jamie's 2004 concert was the fastest sell-out ever at the jazz festival.]


Then last year, I wasn't playing at all. Me and three friends came down for four days, and went to loads of gigs; hung out in the clubs, the bars, and had a great time - it was brilliant. This year I am deep into finishing my new album, which should be out at the end of summer/early autumn, but I'm going to pop down for one of the days.


Come on - tell us which day!


Actually, there's such good stuff on, it's not fair; I wish I could go to all of it. But I'll be going on the Sunday when there are some great people playing, including Jack Dejohnette


- a real jazz legend. He's a drummer who used to play with Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. And also there's a trumpet player from Norway, who's pretty much one of the most extraordinary musicians of all time, called Arve Henriksen. Before now, I've travelled vast distances to see them both play.



What got you into jazz?


I played all types of music in all types of bands when I was growing up - rock, pop, hip hop - but when I finally discovered and started playing jazz, I realized it was such a big springboard: the basis of jazz is in using that spirit of improvisation to take you wherever you want to go.


Were you encouraged at school?


I went to Grittleton House [near Malmesbury], which was a great school. I think it's changed a lot now but, when I was there, there was no big music programme - no big 'anything' programme! It was a good all-round school that encouraged you to do what you wanted to do. In some ways, that's probably why I ended up doing music: because my parents didn't make me; my school didn't make me; I found it myself.


Becoming a jazz musician wasn't an obvious way to find success...


Well, of course, that was never my modus operandi. I was just having a laugh playing music; I didn't think I was going to be anything like the commercial success I am. As far as success is concerned, I don't think there are any rules any more. Because it's so easy to get hold of music, you do what you love and, hopefully, people will come to you because they see something true and real. I honestly think it's more difficult to be a fake these days.


Are your family musical?


Yes, they're all kind of musical people. My grandmother was rumoured to have made the time go by during the wars, as a Jewish refugee, in clubs singing with a friend of hers: that's part of our family folklore.


You read English literature at university - any literary influences on your music?



I've just discovered a Spanish author called Roberto Bolao who I'm reading a lot of at the moment; his writing is inspiring me. And of course, as a teenager I was really into the Beat Poets, as most young teens are. There's a lot to be inspired by in their work.



Is that an age that you should have been born in?


I think I could have been a child of the late '60s when rock and roll was really exploding. I also would like to have been at the dawn of time so I could tell everyone how the hell it all happened! But apart from that, I do think - as difficult as the age we live in is - now is the only place I want to be. I'm a child of the 21st century.


So where is jazz in the 21st century?


Jazz is in the healthiest place it's ever been in. You can now actually study jazz - your Charlie Parkers would never have believed that! There are more jazz musicians than ever before; and so many good young musicians out there, it's frightening. We've just got to ensure we don't get to the stage where there are more people playing it than listening to it.


Because of the way music is being consumed nowadays, boundaries are getting smaller. Is that a good thing?


It's a great thing. People are listening to the Beatles, then Metallica, Brahms, and Herbie Hancock. A few years ago, music was defined by what was on the telly or the radio; now the only limit is your imagination. People are discovering a bit of Miles Davis; they like a bit of Red Hot Chili Peppers; they like a bit of Bach - there's no limit. It's easier to get hold of this stuff, so you don't have to like just pop or just rock - you can like all kinds of things.


Do you worry about problems in the music industry?


The music that's being made now is of as great a vintage as any era. I see no reason to be downbeat. The only problems are with the way we sell the music; we have to find a way of making sure everyone who works on the music gets what they deserve from it. Maybe people aren't getting as rich as they used to, but maybe that's a good thing. You shouldn't do music to get rich; you should do it because you love it.


Would you recommend Cheltenham's festival to someone new to jazz?


Definitely. I think jazz is something that works so well live. It's hard if you've never heard it before to fall directly in love with it from a recorded music point of view. Going out to see it live, seeing the interplay between the musicians, seeing the music happen in front of your eyes: that's an amazing thing. And that's the best way to fall in love with it.


You can find out more about Jamie from www.jamiecullum.com

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