Theo Croker: Ace of Trumps

Jenn Chan Lyman By

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It's time for people with integrity to stand up, and time for the bullshitters to sit down. —Theo Croker
If you've never seen Theo Croker before, he's a pretty easy one to spot. He's the one with the trumpet by his side at all times. The neat dreadlocks and mischievous glint in his eye are also dead giveaways. Having grown up in the U.S. in a musically oriented family, Croker was introduced to the world of jazz and the blues at a young age. He picked up the trumpet at 11 and has been a virtuoso ever since, recording his first album, The Fundamentals (Left Sided Music, 2006), at 20 and his second, In The Tradition (Arbors Records, 2009), at 22. When in Shanghai, he's often found onstage perfecting his art at JZ Club, Cotton Club, Sound Blue or the House of Blues and Jazz. He will be also gracing the stage at the JZ Music Festival, Shanghai's annual round-up of international stars and local artists, where Dee Dee Bridgewater will be headlining, in mid-October, 2009.

Theo Croker

AAJ: Can you pinpoint the moment when that first musical seed was planted?

TC: I don't even know, it's just always been there. When I was a little kid I remember taking three hour baths and beating on the bath tub and shower stall with chopsticks until I was shooed out of the bathroom [chuckles]. I was always making musical sounds. If I saw a movie and liked the soundtrack, I'd be singing the orchestra parts all the way home. My grandfather was a jazz musician so we always had jazz in the house. My mom's of Argentine descent and she loves to tango and all sorts of Latin music, and my dad, he was a cool cat, he liked jazz and R&B. They liked music, not so much popular music, but musical music, so it was always there.

AAJ: How'd you decide on the trumpet?

TC: My grandfather, Doc Cheatham, played the trumpet, and my older brother did, too. I used to sneak into [my older brother's] room when he wasn't home and play his trumpet. My parents said to me, "You don't have to play the trumpet just because they play the trumpet, you can play any instrument you want," but I said, "No, I want to play the trumpet." And that was that. Every other instrument just looked funny to me. Even when I learned other instruments after that, I learned them through the trumpet.

AAJ: What's one track or album that has had a major impact on you as a musician?

TC: There's so much. When I first starting listening to CDs, it was after my grandfather died and Verve Records gave me a box of all the CDs they'd put out that year. I went through that box, I still have all of those albums, and the one that caught me was a compilation on the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie called Talkin' Verve (Verve, 1997). He was one of the hipsters in jazz who brought it into the bebop and cool era. So as a little kid I was really into that and into the fact that it was heavy swing. It wasn't pop-ish or funk-ish, it was pretty hard-core swing. That set the standard for me for the next five or six years; if it wasn't swing, I wasn't into it. I was thirteen years old and asking "Where's the swing?" [smiles]. It was kind of strange.

AAJ: Other than a trumpeter, you have also led a 17-piece big band and an 80-person young adult choir. What type of stage performance do you enjoy the most?

TC: Oh wow, that was a long time ago, a lot of people don't know about that. I love playing at festivals and outdoor concerts because of the open space. Bars and clubs are cool and very intimate, but it's not always about the music. Outdoor festivals can be like that, too. In a concert hall, you go there to present something to people, with an overall theme, dealing with different emotions and colors. You can really bond with people in that kind of setting. You know that people are there to listen.

AAJ: Other than a jazz composer, you've also scored film, produced hip-hop and composed modern classical music. Do the different genres affect you when you write?

Theo CrokerTC: When I'm composing music, genre isn't important at all, unless I'm being hired to write something specifically. Otherwise, it's all just music. For the contemporary classical pieces, I wrote it for myself, for my own interests, and it was to learn how to compose for an orchestra and compose for strings. It was very out, and a lot of the players who played it didn't like it, but I liked it [grins mischievously]. At the time I'd somehow gotten a position as Artist in Residence at this theater company. I'd composed a 15-part suite and I brought it to the director, this big, two inch thick book of music, and said I'd like to perform it. I think that was pretty impactful, for me to come up to him and say I wrote it, I can rehearse it, I want to do it.

AAJ: How old were you then?

TC: I was, uh, seventeen. [Laughs] Yeah, I was pretty ambitious. They funded it, and we went for two seasons.

AAJ: What about these film scores?

TC: Film scoring is very new for me, and I haven't done anything major. I've done some independent films with people that I've known. The most significant thing for me was a pilot for a documentary on domestic abuse for HBO. It had really powerful images and a really powerful story, and the music was deep and powerful. That was very cool, because the music, tied in with the images, had a really big impact. It meant a lot for me, like I was contributing to society in creating that soundtrack. And the music was... [pauses] felt. I think it's a challenge for me to write a happy song. I don't mean that everything I write is sad, but my music has a darkness to it. It's not giddy or anything like that.

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 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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