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Theo Croker: Ace of Trumps

By Published: September 23, 2009

Theo CrokerAAJ: What do you want to reach out to people with in your music?

TC: I don't know yet, that's still part of what I'm trying to find out. I think the process for me is a lifelong process. The statements that I do put out are about presenting something you believe in to people, and that goes for all my compositions. For The Fundamentals, I believed in the concepts behind the songs and the musicians also believed in what they were playing, and those beliefs are our fundamentals, our basis. Then after that, my second album, In the Tradition, is about where I come from. Somebody approached me and asked me to play a tribute to my grandfather, and I said, well I'm not him, and I can't be him, but I can play the songs that I remember hearing him play. I chose songs that I liked and played them in a traditional style, but as me, not as him.

AAJ: On that album, you sing as well. Is that something we'll hear more of in the future?

TC: Yeah, that's a very old school way of singing. It was the way my grandfather sang. I was at a festival one day, I think at the Lincoln Center, and one of the producers asked me to sing "I Guess I'll Get The Papers and Go Home," which was one of my grandfather's theme songs [as well as the name of Doc Cheatham's 1996 autobiography, published by Cassell], so I just got up there and sang it like he would sing it. Years later I was in the studio with the same producer and he said, "You're singing. Which of these songs do you know the words to?" I tend not to sing live because it's not really something that I've worked out.

AAJ: And your upcoming album, The Time Is Now, what is that one all about?

TC: The first song is called "Change (Freedom Song)," and it reflects how society is changing, how culture is changing, how America is changing. The Time is Now refers to people suddenly realizing that things aren't what they appear to be, with the financial crisis and companies like Enron. You have to go back to the things that you can hold on to, the meat and potatoes. It's time for people with integrity to stand up, and time for the bull-shitters to sit down. The time is now, if you have integrity, to present it. The time is now, if you are Obama, to lead the free world. That's the underlying context of the album.

The other tune titles reflect that, like "Restless," which is like, I'm tired of sitting here waiting for somebody to make something happen for me, I'm gonna make it happen for myself. "What If" is [about] a question that's always crazy to ask, and the fourth song, "Directions," [is about] moving and where are we going.

AAJ: What's the jazz scene like in Shanghai for musicians?

TC: Well, in other places, you may have a lot of people who know the standard repertoire and the historical progression of jazz, but here, jazz is still new to a lot of people. The preconception of who I am as a jazz musician here is completely different and unique to anywhere else in the world. [Audiences] here are not holding me to any expectations, so that really opens the door, and anytime you open that door, which can mean good and bad things. [Musicians] who are really pushing and have a lot of integrity in their music have a fresh audience to play for without any preconceptions, while [musicians] that are bull-shitting, can bullshit. And there are a lot of bull-shitters out there, because it's easier to bull-shit.

Theo CrokerAAJ: What's different when you play in Shanghai versus New York or other places?

TC: Oh, so many things. New York has harbored jazz musicians for at least a century, so you're playing for a well-informed audience and around well-informed musicians. That's the biggest difference. But when you try to do your own thing, you come off really left-sided. When you do your own thing here, it's not like that. For example when Alec Haavik

Alec Haavik

plays here, [his music] is not considered left- sided, it's just him, just Alec. Society's not trying to dampen what he wants to do. But in New York you can come off the wrong way and people just say, "No, we're not into that, that's not jazz, this and that." Alec's not even calling it jazz, it's just him.

What I don't like about what's going on in America, is that jazz has become this institutionalized, high art form. By doing that, it's secured its existence and its history, but it's turned away young people, turned away entertainment, turned away the industry, and now it's like concert music. Somebody's gotta pay to hear it. You can go to school and get a degree playing jazz, and that's bullshit, even though I have one [chuckles]. I went so that I could hang out with the teachers, who are all musicians, but the degree means nothing to me. I don't even know where it is.

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