From the traditional to the spiritual and the really out-there, acclaimed performer Jamie Cullum picks his favourite jazz inspirations.
Most people know Mingus as a pioneering bass player, but to me he’s the most raucous and inventive composer of his era. His music has the energy of a revolution and, indeed, soundtracked many revolutions during the 50s and 60s. I was 15, aware of what was in the charts and flitting between dance music, indie rock and pop, and his particular style of free-form spoke to me as a rejection of the mainstream. There’s nothing polite about it, but I responded to his style of dirty jazz tinged with violence in a positive way. It seemed to be the epitome of rebellion, yet educational.
John Coltrane 1926-67
By 19, I was learning the mathematics of jazz, which is hard for someone with no grasp of maths. Coltrane is the master of well-formulated, perfectly composed music. He also played a very spiritual style of jazz. It was almost religious. You could even say he channelled the divine through his sax. It was A Love Supreme from 1965 which I connected with. It took a while, for some reason getting into Coltrane felt like a slow process, but he taught me the basics, so it’s no surprise I got into him when I was taking a year out after school to decide what to do with my life. He was my epiphany.
Mary Lou Williams 1910-81
Mary Lou spanned the entire history of jazz. She started out playing in a swing band and moved every decade into a new arena of music, doing modal stuff in the 70s, and later playing avant garde. I discovered her on a jazz compilation I found in Oxfam. The song was “Zodiac Suite” and I was staggered that she managed to straddle both jazz and classical music. She was one of the few jazz musicians to be accepted by the classical world, and even played in Carnegie Hall with an orchestra. She was a fantastic composer, pianist and mentor and the most important woman in jazz.
Herbie Hancock 1940-
Herbie Hancock is one of the few jazz pianists who progressed with the times. From fusion funk through to electronic music using synthesizers and toys, he’s always been way ahead. It was Head Hunters, the record that fused funk and soul with pop, that I fell in love with. I grew up in the west country with little exposure to jazz and although I wasn’t rejecting pop, I knew there was more to music. Through Herbie, electro and drum’n’bass, I developed an understanding of improvisation. I aim to operate somewhere between Herbie and Ben Folds at all times.
Nat King Cole 1919-65
By my late teens I was really getting into the singers. Nat King Cole was a household name and I adored his voice but wasn’t into the big orchestral pieces. At a record shop this guy handed me a record of him doing Gershwin, Cole Porter, that style, with strings and a piano, and I realised this was the Cole I wanted to emulate. He was an immense talent in his own right as a jazz performer, not just with the big band stuff. I guess I was, by then, a music snob and geek and consciously rejecting obvious, accessible jazz. Listening to Cole’s alternative side made me think I was right to be a snob.
Miles Davis 1926-91
The Miles I know is Miles Davis in the late 60s, the Bitches Brew era. I’d heard of Miles via Herbie Hancock. I was 18, reading Jack Kerouac and beat writers who bang on about jazz all the time, and felt I needed to be challenged musically. That psychedelic inaccessible jazz works at an age when you are working stuff out for yourself. It was like a culture shock in my bedroom. I didn’t understand the music, I didn’t even like it that much , and yes, I knew there was heroin involved but I didn’t know in what way. I just knew I should be listening. It mattered that I’d heard it. And that combined experience of sound and literature felt very exotic.
Keith Jarrett 1945-
I was about 18 when I saw Jarrett play in the Barbican. I was fond of what he had done with Miles Davis in the 1970s so the fact that he was still alive, well, I had to see him play. He has the most phenomenal technique. I’d never heard that level of free form improv piano playing – he looked like a mischievous magician. It honestly felt like he could set fire to the piano if he wanted. Keith struck a chord for me as a performer in the way he commanded the whole audience. It was almost as if we weren’t there, yet he knew we were his. It was through Jarrett that I started to understand what it must be like to play jazz at that level to a crowd.
Kurt Elling 1967-
It was during a documentary about Ella Fitzgerald that I first heard Kurt’s voice. I was in the kitchen and I could hear the sound of a man almost chanting over music. He was performing vocalese, the art of performing words over jazz solos, and he was just singing about Ella. Kurt just had this swooning, Sinatra sound combined with an intellect for the words, it was very moving. He makes vocalese look so easy and sound so gentle, like a saxophone. He’s relatively unknown outside of the jazz world, but revered as a singer among musicians. They view him as an academic and intellectual authority on jazz as well as a performer.
Thelonious Monk 1917-82
The best way to describe Thelonious Monk would be to say that if Picasso’s work was musical, it would sound like Monk. The first time I heard it was in a record shop in Bristol while hunting for new sounds. I found his to be so angular, like tiny piano mazes, in which you lose yourself without realising. I was freaked out. It’s minimalist and child-like, but deceptively so, because underneath is a raw complexity which you only get after several listens. Since my peers were listening to pop, Monk was a private pleasure. Black culture in the middle of Wiltshire: that’s what I experienced behind closed doors.
Wynton Marsalis 1961-
Wynton is more about the poetry of jazz and the building blocks of music. He made me want to go to New York, which I did, and I watched him play four nights in a row. I didn’t always agree with his style but having saturated myself with the masters, it was good to return to something traditional. After seeing him, I decided actually to do the music, properly. He’s an excellent ambassador of jazz, a mentor for kids and a 21st-century Duke Ellington – nothing more, nothing less.