Tom Seals - Crewe jazz sensation
- Credit: Jack Kirwin
You may not be familiar with his name just yet but a modern brand of boogie woogie and jazz is putting this local lad from Crewe on the world’s musical map
Last year, just before Tom Seals was due to go on stage to play with his hero, Jools Holland, his mother handed him a piece of paper. It was old enough that the folds had become permanent creases and the edges a little too worn. 'I opened it up and saw it was my writing,' says Tom, 26, who's been playing jazz, swing and big band music from the tender age of seven. 'It read, "My name is Tom. I am 10 years old and this is my autobiography. My dream is to play piano with Jools Holland".'
His mother had kept it. The woman who had touted her son's piano-playing talents to a local wine bar when he was just 13 - and then sat there through his four-hour set every week because he was too young to legally do it unaccompanied - had always believed in him.
Which may explain why playing with Jools was one of a catalogue of dreams Tom now has. More than that actually - it's a bucket list of ambitions he's determined to fulfil. He can already tick off playing Glastonbury. That happened earlier in the summer after someone had seen him play at Jool's Boogie Woogie and Blues Spectacular.
And by the time you read this, he'll have another under his belt; selling out his first gig at the iconic Ronnie Scott's jazz venue in London's Soho.
'I've played upstairs before but I've never played in the main room,' he explains. 'So it's been right up there at the top of my list. Every incredible act there's ever been has played there.'
Talking of incredible acts, let's also mention the fact he's played with Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter and Sir Paul McCartney.
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But how does a 90s child, born and raised in Crewe, develop a passion for boogie woogie and blues in the first place?
'My Grandad Geoff had a big band, playing all the swing classics, Glen Miller, Duke Ellington - all the biggies,' he remembers. 'I'd go down to the hall he rehearsed in and when they were on a break I'd sit there and hit the keys on the piano. I was only five or so.'
It wasn't long before his propensity to bang out a semblance of a tune became useful at home. 'I remember my sister, Rebecca, was having singing lessons. My parents bought her a little keyboard to practice her scales on. She liked singing but could never be bothered to play the keyboard herself so she used to get me to do it,' he says.
His parents could see a passion developing and, in time, replaced the keyboard with a full-sized piano.
'You know that most kids have to be nagged to practice a musical instrument? I was the opposite,' Tom laughs. 'They used to tell me I didn't have to play the piano <all> the time. I remember the neighbours saying to my parents "Oh he's getting better isn't he?" It must have been relentless for them.'
The propensity for jazz - and all the intuitive freewheeling it entails - was in him from an early age. And it really didn't fit with the classical style of piano he was being taught: 'My first piano teacher was very strict. I remember her telling me off, saying "I don't think you're actually reading the music, I think you're just making it up".'
And so his parents found him a teacher who actively encouraged him to make things up. 'His name's David Ketley,' says Tom. 'And he's the best teacher I could have hoped for. It was like being around grandad again. He encouraged me to just go for it. At the time I just thought that was fun, I didn't know that was jazz.'
And from that first paid gig, aged 13, in a Nantwich bar - 'They paid me £20 for my set; I was the best paid 13-year-old in Crewe' - he's become a prolific performer. He estimates he's done between 1,800 and 2,000 gigs in the last ten years. He now travels so frequently that his girlfriend of just over a year, Gemma, has given up her office job to become a virtual assistant so she is able to travel with him. He has played at jazz festivals to audiences of 20,000 and in intimate iconic venues such as New York's famous Birdland jazz club. 'You're so aware of the greats who have been there,' he says. 'I'm on stage thinking Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald have played here.'
How did he go down with the audience in a club that's had such stellar acts on its billing? 'The fact that I'm British helps. If I'm on the bill with lots of other US acts, I seem to go down better than anyone else once I start talking and they hear my accent'.
A perk of the job - aside from the international travel (he is on his way to Helsinki via Stockholm the day we speak) and the small matter of getting paid to do what he loves - is the opportunity to meet his heroes.
He talks warmly of Jamie Cullum who not only invited him on stage to play but also insisted he join him in a national radio interview afterwards.
'He couldn't have been nicer,' says Tom. 'I think we're all bonded by this passion for music and he was incredibly supportive. I hope if I'm as successful as him I'll be able to do the same for someone.'
And as for Jools? 'I've met Jools a few times but when I went to the show last year I warned my girlfriend that he might not even remember me. But when I walked into the dressing room he immediately got up, shook my hand and called me by my name. That was so special to me.'
And so what next for the Cullum of Crewe? Well, he's recorded a second EP at Liverpool's Motor Museum recording studios. His first one, by the way, reached number one in the blues chart. And he's determinedly, doggedly working his way through that bucket list.
Playing at the Albert Hall and getting invited to Buckingham Palace both feature. We don't know if he's written those down anywhere, but when they inevitably happen - because there's nothing about Tom Seals that makes you doubt they will - we can at least hand him this page.
His dreams in writing, waiting to be played out in real life.