Singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum’s obsession with jazz began when he saw The Fabulous Baker Boys. He was a 15-year-old piano prodigy at the time and had just started to get paid gigs in hotels. It didn’t matter that they were in Swindon, a small English town not noted for its rich jazz heritage. Teenage Jamie was just like his hero in the movie, the brilliant jazz pianist Jack Baker, though considerably less tortured.
Now 36, Cullum laughs this off as youthful folly. “When you’re a teenager, you grab on to certain icons to help you through the crippling nature of what it is actually to be a teenager,” he says. But in many ways he is still living the teenage dream. An acclaimed jazz pianist, he has released six albums and tours the world with his band. And this spring, he began a series of gigs Baker would have killed for: The Jazz Legends at St. Regis Series, an intimate set of live performances at St. Regis hotels around the world. Throughout the Jazz Age, the rooftop ballroom at The St. Regis New York played host to many of the jazz world’s biggest names, from Count Basie to Buddy Rich. Cullum has curated playlists and booked local acts to play alongside him as he celebrates St. Regis’ musical legacy.
Much of Cullum’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz comes from his compulsive record-buying habit. “I’m almost permanently on the lookout for new sounds,” he says. As a teenager he dug everything from grunge to hip hop, but also loved to mine charity shops for old records. “I started picking up jazz albums by artists like Herbie Hancock, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk almost by accident. If there was a hip-looking dude in a kaftan holding a saxophone on the cover, that usually worked for me!”
This is how he acquired many of his favorite albums, such as Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, which has “the rawness of a punk record”. He now owns somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 records, as well as about 5,000 CDs. “I’ve cut it down a little bit, but it’s actually quite a modest amount,” he says. “I know people with 15,000 vinyls, easily.”
He is not one to pay hundreds of dollars for rarities – if you know where to look, you don’t have to. And thanks to all the touring, Cullum has gotten to know many of the world’s best record shops. So where’s good? “In Paris, there’s a place called Oldies but Goodies. It’s the best store for old records in the world: a floor-to-ceiling library. America has a lot of good ones, too. Like Joe’s Record Paradise in Washington – for rock, rockabilly, jazz, hip hop… all the good stuff. When I’m in New York, I spend the most at Colony Records in Midtown, not too far from The St. Regis New York. Or Bleecker Street Records, another amazing one for collectors.”
One question remains. How much does his habit cost him a month? “Mmmmm, that’s a hard one!” he laughs. “I couldn’t even guess.”