Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum built his career the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

Beginning professionally at 16, the singer/songwriter moved from pop and rock bands to solo gigs on cruise ships to the U.K. club circuit, writing original material and honing his unique interpretations of standards and pop covers.

His electrifying performances, which see him leaping on and around his piano and percussively attacking the instrument’s keys, strings and body, go hand-in-hand with his rock-inspired take on jazz.

Pollstar spoke with Cullum the day after the Grammy Awards, where his Universal debut, Twentysomething, was nominated for best jazz vocal album.

“I had a lot of fun at the Grammys,” Cullum said. “A little bit too much fun, actually.”

The slightly hung-over singer was happy to move on to the subject of the Brian Wilson tribute two nights earlier at Hollywood’s Palladium, where Cullum received a standing ovation for his rendition of “Sail On, Sailor.”

The modest crooner attributed the audience’s wild reaction to lucky timing, but admitted “it was great.”

It may seem like a long ride from a British ocean liner to the Grammys, but Cullum said the cruise ship gigs were where he first realized he could earn a living with music.

“Prior to that, I’d been in loads of bands, rock bands and pop bands and stuff, that were fun and always had the possibility of going somewhere but never did. And then I started realizing I could enter this world where I’d actually earn a decent kind of living and there was no kind of pressure.”

Cullum began seeing paydays with cruise ships, weddings, and other parties, where he’d perform as a solo act as well as with some other moneymaking ensembles, including a James Brown cover band.

“It was kind of around that point that I started making my own CDs. As soon as I made my first CD and things started to pick up from there, I thought, ‘Maybe this could be my living.'”

His third self-produced album, Pointless Nostalgia, was released by Candid Records and quickly caught the ear of Universal Records and agent Mike Greek of Helter Skelter.

“I heard that and saw that it was beginning to do quite well in the charts, near the bottom end of the top 100,” Greek told Pollstar. “And I saw him play live and was blown away.

Jamie Cullum

“I thought he was an amazing performer who could cross over between both the jazz and the pop/rock world.”

Cullum’s wild performances are perhaps his most talked-about asset. Utilizing his fascination and experience with rock music, the 24-year-old turns the stereotype of the subdued jazz crooner on its head.

“See, in the rock bands and stuff I was in, I’d always been a fairly animated performer, but when I played jazz, I wasn’t sure whether I was allowed to do that, you know?

“It sounds funny, but I had all these preconceived notions about what a jazz musician had to do. That was just my immaturity showing, really,” he said. “I thought I’d have to wear a suit, and I thought I’d have to be polite, and I thought I’d have to sit still, etcetera, etcetera. But gradually, I started to merge the two worlds.”

Along with manager Marc Connor of Air, Greek set out to make the most of Cullum’s genre-bending appeal by booking him a tour of U.K. rock clubs.

“Once we got involved, we tried to really look at ways of utilizing one of his greatest strengths, which is his live performance, and marrying that with his image as a sort of slightly left-field jazz performer,” Greek said.

“The first tour that we really did was a tour of rock ‘n’ roll venues, which included famous places like King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, where Oasis were discovered, rather than playing traditional jazz venues, to give people a sort of different perspective.

“It meant that we could get Jamie to a broader audience and, more importantly, it meant the media weren’t looking at Jamie [in terms of only] one genre of music,” Greek said.

Not content with success in the U.K., Greek and Connor quickly got Cullum to American shores, where a month-long stay at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel netted him a CAA agent, Chris Dalston.

Cullum returned to the U.S. no less than five times over the next year, growing into a sellout artist at the theatre level almost instantly.

His popularity has continued to soar, but most fans will have to wait a few months before seeing him again.

“We toured so heavily last year, almost nonstop. Not that I was bored or anything with touring, but I need to kind of regroup my playing style and just kind of get all excited about it again,” Cullum said. “So I’m kind of making a conscious decision to be off the road for a while, and I’m just making a new album.”

Acknowledging that the road is where he has created his fan base, Cullum added that he doesn’t plan to stay home for long.

The U.S. will get a brief glimpse this spring at Coachella and the New Orleans Jazzfest, after which Cullum will spend the summer on the European festival circuit. Will autumn leaves signal the beginning of another touring marathon?

“I think so,” Cullum said. “It all depends on whether the next album takes flight and whether people like it. Obviously, we can’t wait to get it out and start doing things with it.”