Jamie Cullum: The young pretender

Jamie Cullum, just 24 and Britain's biggest jazz star, is outselling Kylie and Robbie - helped by a £1m promotion budget for his album Twentysomething. Is he the real deal? And can he crack America? Fiona Sturges tracks him down to a hot tub in LA

"It's not a bad life, is it?" says Jamie Cullum, surveying the scene. It's a glorious January day in the Hollywood hills, and Britain's biggest jazz star is waiting to have his picture taken. To the left is Madonna's candy-striped mansion, while stretched out below is downtown Los Angeles. The huge Hollywood sign looms in the background. "I'm officially at work, but look where I am," he cries, squinting into the sunlight. "Most people don't get to do this. We're pretty lucky to be here, don't you think?"

Jamie is instantly likeable, and not just because the first time we meet he plants a big smacker on my cheek and thanks me for travelling all this way, as if spending four days in sun-drenched California is such a big chore. At 24, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and scuffed Converse trainers, he could pass for a teenager. He's small, bright-eyed and handsome in a straggly sort of way, with an untamed look about him.

A combination of raw talent, a hefty marketing campaign and some perfectly-timed plugs from his new chum Michael Parkinson have turned Wiltshire-born Jamie into Britain's fastest-selling jazz artist. Since being signed to Universal for a headline-grabbing £1m last summer, he's provided musical entertainment on every chat-show imaginable, from Richard and Judy to Des and Mel, and he played at the Queen's birthday party. His album Twentysomething, released last October, has sold 650,000 copies in the UK and, by the end of the year, is expected to have topped a million.

Cullum is part of a new generation of musicians - others include the 26-year-old Canadian crooner Michael Bublé and the ubiquitous Norah Jones - who are making jazz hip again. He's outselling Christina Aguilera, Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams. In America, however, he's still unknown. His album isn't due to be released until May, but the campaign to turn him into a household name is well under way.

This is Jamie's second visit to America. The first was a three-week residency at the Algonquin, the famous New York hotel where Dorothy Parker held her literary gatherings. Helped by some hysterical press reviews, by the end of his stint he was the hottest ticket in town. Now he's hoping to work the same magic on Hollywood.

Jamie's first gig takes place in Room 5, a tiny upstairs club on La Brea Avenue. What becomes immediately clear is why he's such a hit among people who don't normally listen to jazz. As well as standards such as "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Singing in the Rain" and "What a Difference a Day Makes", there are powerful re-workings of Jimi Hendrix's "Wind Cries Mary", Radiohead's "High and Dry" and Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should Have Come Over". As he plays he springs around the piano, tapping out beats on the wood and plucking the piano wire with his fingers. In between songs, he tells anecdotes about his time as an entertainer on a Mediterranean cruise ship. In the middle of "I Get a Kick Out of You", after singing the line, "Some get their kicks from cocaine," he gives a little sniff, to furtive giggles all round.

This is an invite-only show for television bookers, music promoters, radio pluggers and journalists. The crowd maintain their cool for all of 10 minutes before they're on their feet and howling approval. After the show, Jamie mingles with the crowd, shaking hands and signing autographs. The next morning he proudly reveals how two girls invited him back to their hotel. "Not one but two!" he exclaims. "I was, like, 'Did anyone hear that?'" So was he tempted? "No. If the truth be told, they were mingers. But two minuses make a plus, right?"

After an early morning photo-shoot, most of the second day is taken up recording a guest slot on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. It's a prime-time chat show, California's answer to David Letterman, and a crucial gig for Jamie. In terms of exposure it's probably the equivalent of a year-long tour, allowing him to reach millions of potential fans in one three-minute performance. After the soundcheck we're left to loiter in the Green Room, and Jamie's manager Marc, and Kas, his UK publicist, take the opportunity to compare schedules. Jamie doesn't join in the discussion, preferring to put his feet up and watch the rolling video of previous performers. "But, look, they're planning your life for the next five years," I tell him. "You could at least demand a holiday."

"Trust me, there's no point getting involved," he sighs. "Leave it to the professionals, that's how I see it. If I really thought about what was going on over there, I'd probably drive myself nuts."

Jamie maintains that he has the last word on what he does and doesn't do. How is that possible when he hasn't a clue what's happening from one week to the next? "It's all down to trust," he says sagely. "The bottom line is that I'm surrounded by good people who I believe have my best interests at heart. If I felt that wasn't the case, I'd be out of here. Seriously, you wouldn't see me for dust."

Finally, the call comes to go into the studio. The warm-up man is busily working the audience into a frenzy. "I want your love and enthusiasm," he bellows, as Jamie and the band shuffle in. "Ladies and gentlemen - but especially ladies - scream your heads off for Jaimeeeee Culluuuuuum." Jamie sings "I Get a Kick Out of You" with the panache of a seasoned pro. Unusually, it's all done in a single take. Afterwards the band are showered with gifts - pens, T-shirts, stickers and a bottle of Bacardi each - by the production team. To his delight, Jamie gets a voucher for two nights in Las Vegas with the use of a chauffeur-driven limousine. He is delighted, though later on he forlornly wonders when he'll find the time to go.

Jamie spends his third morning in Hollywood stuck in his hotel room doing phone interviews. He emerges at lunchtime, looking exhausted. For the first time in three days, the naughty grin is nowhere to be seen. It's the mundane questions that get him down, he says. Everyone asked him which celebrity he'd most like to sleep with. His answer is Scarlett Johansson's character in the film Lost in Translation, the logic being that a fictional character poses no threat to his girlfriend Isabel.

Concerns about his girlfriend surface again when it comes to finding a spot for a proper chat. Jamie wants to sit in the hot tub on the hotel roof, but worries that this might create a bad impression. "It's got to be done, though, hasn't it?" he * * remarks, clearly trying to convince himself. "I mean, talking to a journalist while sitting in a Jacuzzi. How LA is that?"

We agree that he'll sit in the tub while I just dangle my feet over the edge (Jamie makes Yann, the photographer, promise on pain of death not to take any pictures). And so, with Jamie up to his neck in hot water and me up to my ankles, we discuss the bands he used to listen to. It was his older brother Ben, now his songwriting partner, who really shaped his record collection. "He introduced me to all these different bands, from Iron Maiden to Public Enemy," Jamie says. "He had these really eclectic tastes. There were also a few concerts that really changed my viewpoint. One was Harry Connick Jr at the Shepherd's Bush Empire when I was 13. Then there were the rock gigs - The Wedding Present, Ned's Atomic Dustbin, Radiohead at Glastonbury. They alerted me to the possibility of amalgamating lots of different sounds."

Cullum may be the toast of the British pop world, but jazz aficionados have proved considerably harder to please. Assessing his jazz credentials, a critic on this newspaper wrote: "Twentysomething would prepare the palate for Parker and Coltrane no better than a can of Strongbow would pave the way for a St Emilion."

Jamie takes a philosophical view of such criticism. "Someone who is in love with jazz is going to get annoyed when I'm called the greatest British jazz artist alive today, which is fair enough. People question whether I'm jazz at all, and I resolutely say I am, but I'm not pushing the boundaries in the usual way. I'm pushing the limits of the music in terms of how entertaining and accessible it can be without making lift-music. I'm trying to find out whether you can get 16-year-olds who listen to The Strokes and 20-year-olds who listen to house music to think, 'Actually, this is cooler than I thought.' I'm lucky enough to have my music pushed by a major label. So I'm able to bring jazz to a new audience."

I note that he says "pushed" rather than promoted. Is it possible he's being pushed too hard? "Sure," he says cautiously. "There are times when I feel I'm being marketed too much." In what way? "In my opinion, I'm a bit too everywhere, a bit too hyped. I think I'm someone who'd rather have a long, gentle slide to success. But I understand why they're doing it. The buzz has been huge and they need to make money. I'm just taking my opportunity as it is."

Jamie's manager Marc Connor arrives with glowing reviews of the Room 5 show. Hollywood Reporter calls Jamie "a one-man British invasion" and, referring to his self-penned "All At Sea", concludes: "The kid can write." Connor has no doubt about Jamie's capacity to win over American audiences. The game plan, as he sees it, is one of gentle cajoling rather than all-out assault.

"Usually an artist would come over to the States when their record is out and then tour like mad," he says. "We decided it was better to let Jamie sell himself and prepare them for what is to come. Already, we've got Hollywood going crazy for him. One of the big agents told me today that last night's gig was one of the best things he'd ever seen." So what happens next? "We just keep coming back until May. By that time he'll already be a familiar face and people will feel they've discovered him rather than thinking he's been forced upon them."

Connor admits to being stunned by the response to Jamie in Britain. "The amazing thing is that it's sticking," he says. "It's the Norah Jones effect. No amount of promotion can get people to carry on buying a record after that first big push. With most artists, it's sink or swim after the major promotion is over. Luckily, Jamie seems to be a good swimmer."

That night, Jamie and his band play a small venue in Santa Monica. Though more record-company bigwigs are due to attend, this is a show for paying punters too. It goes well, though Jamie has to work harder to get the crowd on his side. He swears a lot, makes jokes about being English and divides the audience, getting both sides to harmonise a jazz groove. By the end they're screaming themselves silly.

Later, we go for dinner at a Mexican restaurant where tequilas are downed at an alarming rate and Jamie is persuaded to try his first molé. ("Chocolate and chicken? No, you're pulling my leg!") There, I ask him if he got to see any of the £1m that was reportedly spent on him. "Not as much as you might think," he replies. "The million pounds is for the record and for promoting it. I got a small advance, which was enough to pay off my student loan and buy myself a new guitar. That's it. When the album's recouped the money that's been spent on it, then I start making money. Which means I have to sell eight million records." So how do you earn a living? "Because I've been promoted in the way that I have, my asking price goes up for gigs. I can now command the higher types of fees that someone who's been on television can. That money goes to me, not the record company."

These days, Jamie's two regular musicians, the acoustic bass player Geoff Gascoyne and the drummer Sebastiaan De Krom, are also commanding higher fees. Geoff has been in and out of bands for 25 years and has toured with Everything But The Girl, Guy Barker and Van Morrison. He met Jamie three years ago when he was teaching a summer school in Bracknell. "Initially I just loved the sound of his voice and said, 'Can we play something?' After a few months we got together with Sebastiaan and decided to start recording."

Jazz is Sebastiaan's greatest love, and he doesn't accept that working with Jamie means he is no longer a proper jazz musician. "I see the other side of the coin right now, about how popular it can be. Other jazz musicians may regard that as selling out, but I don't really care. For me, playing in front of big crowds is a great feeling."

The following day the Jamie Cullum entourage relocates to San Francisco and, for the first time in a fortnight, Jamie manages to steal a couple of hours to himself. He goes out to follow in the footsteps of his hero Jack Kerouac and visit the famous City Lights bookstore. He returns with a copy of Oracle Night, the new Paul Auster novel, and a broad grin on his face. "Right, holiday over," he says, rubbing his hands together. "What's next?"

Next, it turns out, is the worst show of the tour and, according to Jamie, practically his whole career. Sure, he says, there have been plenty of bad gigs in the past - there was one show in Leeds where a man shouted: "Shut up, you're too posh!" - but not like this. The piano is facing the wrong way, the stage is cramped and the crowd talk all the way through. "All I could hear was talking and I couldn't see anything," says Jamie afterwards, slumped in his dressing room with a bottle of beer. "The sound was rubbish and we played terribly." Tonight, he's not in the mood for meeting his public and, with an 8am flight to Seattle scheduled for the next day, he decides to go back to his hotel to bed.

I return to the hotel an hour later to find a message on my answerphone. It's from Jamie. He says: "Sorry to have been such a drama queen on our final meeting. Don't worry, I'm just about managing to laugh about it now. I had a brilliant time today and I hope you did too. And anyway, this is showbusiness, right? What's one bad gig between friends?"

'Twentysomething' is out now on Universal. Jamie Cullum's tour begins on 19 February at Dublin Olympia (www.jamiecullum.com)

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