James Morrison more than a musician

By Valerie Khoo
Sydney Morning Herald

Man with the golden touch... James Morrison's trumpet has taken him all over the world. PHOTO: LISA WILTSE

He can fly planes and drive trucks, but James Morrison's true love is music, writes Valerie Khoo.

Jazz musician James Morrison has toured with such music legends as Ray Charles and BB King. By the time he was 16, he was performing with the Don Burrows Band. He has performed for royalty and world leaders, and was asked to compose and play the opening fanfare at the Sydney Olympics. Often the headline attraction at the world's most famous music venues, Morrison's life isn't short on glamour. He even married a former Miss Australia.

Despite the trappings of fame and accompanying jet-set lifestyle, those close to him say the 44-year-old's work ethic is unwavering. His manager David Green has known him for 17 years. "James works incredibly hard," Green says. "He often works till three or four in the morning then gets up at six and keeps on working. If something's got to be done, he gets it done."

Green says Morrison applies the same single-mindedness to all aspects of his life - not just music. "James is such a driven individual. He is like that in anything he does," he says.

While being one of the world's most acclaimed jazz trumpeters means travelling about 10 months of the year, last year he also became an author, penning his autobiography, aptly titled Blowing My Own Trumpet (Murdoch Books, $34.95). While most authors ask for their deadlines to be extended, Morrison handed in his manuscript at 5pm on the day it was due. "The publishers thought it took me a year to write, but I typed it out in six weeks," Morrison says. He enjoyed the process so much that he's now writing his second book, which he describes as a "boys' own adventure manual".

Morrison isn't short of adventures. As a boy, he wanted to be a pilot. "I used to make planes in the garage," he says. "I had a piece of cardboard where I'd draw a windshield and the horizon. I'd sit in front of it and do very long flights. Mum used to bring me dinner and I would say, 'Not now, I'm between Tokyo and London!"'

Cardboard flight simulators have now turned into the real thing. Morrison not only gained his pilot's licence, he often flies his band to and from gigs. "We sometimes fly home in the middle of the night," he says. "It's great because you can go directly where you want to go without having to think about connecting flights or transfers. We generally travel in a 10-seater twin-engine plane."

He has even flown his band overseas to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. "Flying in Papua New Guinea is very exciting," he says. "Around there it's still like a frontier. Last time we were in a small town in the north of New Guinea performing at a resort for a few days. When we were driving to the airport to fly home, one of our cars was held up at gunpoint. We got shot at and had to escape very quickly in the plane."

Flying planes isn't Morrison's only adrenaline fix. He is also a passionate racing car driver. It was on the racetrack, at a celebrity race at the Adelaide Grand Prix, that Morrison met the woman who would become his wife, Miss Australia 1987, Judi Green. "She cut me off," he says. "I thought it was some guy driving the car so when we stopped I was going to give him a bit of advice. But when I walked up to the car, she got out, took off her helmet and her hair came loose. It was like a movie. All I could manage was, 'Nice driving."'

After two dates, they were engaged. The couple have just celebrated their 18th anniversary and have three boys, Sam, 14, William, 11, and Harry, 9.

Morrison appears to have led a charmed existence, but an underlying theme in his life is sheer hard work. He once combined his performing career with a night job driving trucks for an engineering company. "I did it for a couple of years," he says. "But then I had to give it away because truck drivers start work really early and jazz musicians start work really late. I was playing in nightclubs till 4am and then had to be in the truck at 6am."

Most people would shun this ridiculous schedule, but Morrison says: "I'm a boy. What boy doesn't want to drive a big truck?"

This musician's love for machines and gadgets has led him into a partnership with electronics designer and robotics expert Steve Marshall. Together they have created a digital trumpet. Notes played in the trumpet can be programmed to play other instruments or sounds, much like a keyboard synthesiser. The first Morrison Digital Trumpet was released about a year ago.

Marshall describes Morrison as a "genius". "Collaborating with James is great because he's got so much knowledge about playing the trumpet," he says "He's a real visionary - not just in music, but across so many subjects."

Achieving a work-life balance is easy, Morrison says, because his work isn't something he stops living to do. "I just know that I want to be as good as I can, to play music to as many people as possible and to have them feel what I feel," he says.

"But along the way it's meant that I've also ended up doing some wonderful things, like play at the Olympics and tour the world. But those things happen because of my overall goals - to be able to share the joy of music with everyone."

Track record
Education/training Diploma in jazz from the Conservatorium of Music. Since then I have received an honorary doctorate from Griffith University. It makes me sound terribly legitimate, which my mother loves.

First job
Playing with my quartet on Saturday mornings when I was nine outside the supermarket in Mona Vale. We got a dollar each.

Work experience
Played music professionally all over the world.

Worst career moment
The time when I was supposed to play the national anthem of Spain for the Davis Cup final at the Rod Laver Arena. I was given the wrong anthem to play and it was broadcast on international television.

Big break
When I met Don Burrows when I was 16 and he asked me to join his group.

Job you never put on your CV
I was a brickie's labourer for a few weeks one summer. They were great to work with but they really work hard for a living. I realised I'd better stick with trumpet playing.

Best career advice you've been givenĀ 
Just play a lot. You don't get a job in music from your CV. You get it by being out there playing and being heard.

Published: 20 January 2007

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