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Theo Croker: It's Just Black Music


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I want to make my music relate to more than just old white people. I want it to speak to my generation. My generation's younger.
In a field teeming with talented young lions, the bright sound of trumpeter Theo Croker still sticks out. Grandson of the legendary jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham, the native Floridian graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and is part of a new movement of emerging jazz artists who expertly incorporate hip hop, electronic and R&B elements in their sound in an organic, fluid way. Croker's music both harks back and looks forward at the same time, a balancing act that few can manage— it's challenging and at the same time easily accessible.

Croker's new album on Okeh Records, Star People Nation, Featuring guests pianist Eric Lewis (ELEW) and Jamaican reggae artist Chronixxx finds the trumpeter continuing on a path started on his 2006 debut album The Fundamentals, followed by such breakthroughs as 2014's Afro Physicist (Produced by Dee Dee Bridgewater) and last left off at Escape Velocity (2016). Only this time out, he's opted for an even more ambitious, conceptual approach—with stunning results.

AAJ: You're originally from Florida, right?

TC: Yeah. Leesburg.

AAJ: And of course, your grandfather was the great Doc Cheatham. Do you still find inspiration in his work?

TC: Yes, I'm still studying the way he played the trumpet, and as a soloist, he was quite unique.

AAJ: In what ways did you find his approach to soloing unique?

TC: The way he maneuvers through the harmony.

AAJ: You yourself have a beautiful, even tone, and most of your playing is unfussy -linear, which you use to maneuver against many musical backgrounds, kind of the way Miles Davis did. Would you say that's true?

TC: Yes, I'd say that's pretty accurate. I think the sound is the most important element. I mean, you could play a whole bunch of shit but if the sound isn't pretty, People just can't relate to it.

AAJ: Yeah, it's like you can have all the technical ability in the world but if you don't have a personal style, it doesn't matter. But that's a hard won victory, wouldn't you say?

TC: Yes. It's like when I was in my thirties I tried to stop sounding like my contemporaries, listening to other trumpet players, which I now do little of, just to make sure I always have an original approach to my playing.

AAJ: In the past, was there someone whose sound you found yourself really sticking to? Like, "I really want to sound like this guy. I love the way he sounds."

TC: Oh man. I went through periods of lots of people. It was always Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie in the beginning, and of course I went through a Miles Davis period in college. Then I kinda stopped studying, or at least dissecting and transcribing so much. I would study, but I would just check out what they (trumpet players) were doing online, at least rhythmically. But I wouldn't learn solos or anything anymore.

AAJ: One of the people I noticed you've played with on a recording is Roy Hargrove—a great trumpeter. How did that come about?

TC: Well, I was recording his tune, and actually had been singing that tune overseas, (Roy Allen, off the album Afro Physicist) and I heard him singing it on a bootleg. I wanted to record it, and I left two choruses open for him to sing and asked him if he wanted to record with me, and he was down. I got to play trumpet behind Roy Hargroves' singing. It was super-magical. He was supporting what I was doing.

AAJ: Was he an influence on your trumpet playing?

TC: Roy is definitely present in my playing and what I'm doing, the whole trumpet lineage is. But I turned it into my own thing. I mean, I can pull out the horn and play like Roy, or imitate Roy. I spent years trying to achieve that. The same thing with Wynton Marsalis. I can pull out a horn and imitate him, the way he imitates Louis Armstrong, and that helps me with my playing, like how I play certain keys, but you have to turn that into your own thing.

AAJ: Please correct me if I'm wrong, I don't know what's going on in your head, but in your latest album and albums right before it, you've been adding elements of pop, R&B and funk in your music, as opposed to traditional post-bop straight ahead jazz, though you obviously have the chops. What made you choose to go in that direction?

TC: Honesty. Being present in the moment. I want to make my music relate to more than just old white people. I want it to speak to my generation. My generation's younger. Involving funk and R&B and hip hop is simply returning all the elements borrowed from jazz back into it. I mean all those art forms that came out of jazz are black music, really. They were just branches from a tree where jazz was the foundation, so I don't see any harm in incorporating those elements. I don't do it intentionally. I'm not saying, "Oh, we're going for R&B" "We're going for funk." The only thing you do in jazz intentionally is play straight ahead. I guess it's been separated in the minds of the collegiate world, the jazz academic world, where (they) separate all the styles instead of it being one thing. I mean, Duke Ellington was implementing rock and avant-garde approaches in his music. With pieces like "Chinoiserie" and "La Fleurette Africaine." John Coltrane was implementing all kinds of shit when he was composing songs like "Dahomey Dance" from India, Ascension, even A Love Supreme. Miles Davis of course went though the whole gambit. Woody Shaw was implementing funk through his music. Randy Weston. The lineage says to do that if you study the music. At no point does it say "This swing thing is all there is." I don't know if you've heard how Branford Marsalis has been out here saying "Robert Glasper can't play..."

AAJ: Yes, that was recent.

TC: ...That we're losing the jazz lineage. That's his opinion. Some of that may be true. You know, I don't know how he's able to... well, maybe that's a different topic. Maybe what he's playing is old-fashioned traditionalist from a period when he wasn't even alive.

AAJ: Well, what he's playing now is still a result of past innovations.

TC: Absolutely. It just fascinates me that people at that level of success, that level of education, can disregard generations of development in jazz...

AAJ: I took it as a shock tactic. You know, to call attention to whatever he's doing right now.

TC: Yes, I didn't take it that seriously, nor was I surprised by it. There seems to be so many rules in this genre (jazz). Even classical music seems more free from this kinda shit. Hip hop and R&B aren't even scrutinized in this way. The gentrification of jazz, culturally.

AAJ: Which leads me to the question: do you consider what you do "jazz"? Should it be characterized as "jazz"?

TC: It's just music. It's just black music. Everything I'm pulling from comes from that, that's what I grew up listening to. On the radio, in the household... so when I compose my own music, that's what I'm interested in—everything that was black music. I mean, I get it, there's a base that supports jazz—but they're not black. It is important to me that the music I make does something for the community that raised me—which was the black community. It has to have some kind of relevance. I want to give back. I'm not making art for myself.

AAJ: Yes...

TC: The jazz agenda is very clearly defined to make certain people comfortable with this "straight ahead" concept, you know? But it's only straight ahead when it's convenient. Because Wynton, Branford,—all those artists who are anti anything that's not straight ahead have done plenty of non straight ahead music and frankly not very well.

AAJ: And honestly, you can't win because if you played everything straightforwardly and just did what you thought people wanted, you'd probably be accused of not being original or not being as good as the way Miles Davis played it or Clifford Brown or somebody, so either you imitate—and I mean this respectfully—a lot of dead musicians or you can attempt to do something fresh that comes organically out of your personal experience.

One of my favorite cuts of yours is a cover of the Stevie Wonder tune "Visions" on the Afro Physicist album, which you cut with the vibraphonist Stefon Harris. It's definitely a striking interpretation of the song, but I can't decide if you would necessarily call it "jazz..." It's just good music.

TC: Yes, Stevie Wonder is "pop" because he sold a lot of records, but his music has so much harmonic and rhythmic content. It works well within a group format. Even without vocals. There's so much separation within the jazz community on what constitutes "jazz"—it's stifling.

AAJ: Does it matter to you? What jazz critics think?

TC: No.

AAJ: So you don't read your reviews?

TC: It can mess with your head if you read reviews too much. And then, if I do read a review, within a few sentences I can tell what their opinions about jazz are in general by how they write. They either call in comparisons; like how much I sound like Freddie Hubbard and that he's an influence. Now I love Freddie Hubbard, but he's not someone I ever tried to sound like.

AAJ: I guess a tool of jazz criticism, or any type of criticism, is to draw comparisons. For example, I've read that Brad Mehldau would sometimes get annoyed because he felt his sound was constantly being compared to Bill Evans. But many jazz critics are not necessarily musicians, so I think it's a shorthand way to describe a sound for musical novices.

TC: I welcome informed criticisms of art. When you write about my music, you don't have to mention any other music or any other musical concepts. You can write about how it reflects life, how it inspires you or how it doesn't. How it makes you feel. I don't see a lot of that, which is why I don't read a lot of it.

AAJ: It's how some folks absorb music, especially jazz, the need to isolate specific performances and compare them to other artists or recordings. Not so much the overall experience or feeling. "That drumming sounds a bit like Billy Cobham." "That saxophone solo reminds me of a Sonny Stitt solo I once heard on a Japanese live reissue."—that sort of thing.

Let's talk about the new album, Star People Nation. I understand it was inspired at least in part by Elvin Jones. What's the story behind that?

AAJ: Oh, just one of the songs, "The Messenger."

If you really think about every member of that quartet (John Coltrane Classic Quartet), they were so punk rock. I mean Trane's wearing flannel shirts, Elvin's wearing mesh tank tops 'cause he's sweating like crazy. They're not always wearing suits and ties. They're playing these long forms, there's a lot of rhythmic development going on— over basic changes a lot of the time. They were taking small amounts of material and working the hell out of them. To me, that's so tribal. In a way, Elvin, in my opinion, helped pioneer modern rock drumming. He was an innovator. That's why we can't continue to have this narrative in jazz that it has be played a certain way because that's never been true historically. We have to continue to push. Now that doesn't mean you can't turn around and play anything old school.

AAJ: What are the general themes and thoughts behind Star People Nation— even what the title means?

TC: It's about a sense of community. A platform for artists of different disciplines. There was a visual artist involved. There was a photographer involved. They're all super-creative people. The artwork all has messages in it; things that are represented that anyone can relate to: parenthood, upbringing. An everyday ritual of blackness is kind of a theme. So the music itself reflects all that. It's meant to evoke a conversation and my expression of that specific topic. On the other hand, Star People Nation—star people are people who came down from a serious beat galaxy, commuted from the stars and retreated back into the ocean. This group who came here and elevated our awareness.

AAJ: Changing the subject a bit—on the current music scene, what do you think of the musicianship we're hearing these days in pop music? There seem to be less and less actual musicians who play instruments on a professional level. Folks seem to be mostly making beats and working with loops and samples.

TC: I do find it interesting that people are selling millions of downloads that have little to no musical ability. I don't know if that's a new thing— doesn't seem like it. I mean, my generation didn't create that. Somewhere along the line, it became more about image and the actions of an artist rather than their actual artistry. That to me is confusing, but it's my subjective opinion because I've been a committed, serious musician all my life. I hear music in a certain way.

AAJ: Do you think in a way this is how it's always been? There was plenty of bad music in the '70s, '60s '50s, '40s, '30s.

TC: It's not just musicianship. We all know about The Beatles and what shitty musicians they were. But they still made some beautiful music. They did the work. I don't know how much these folks out here are doing the work. Like I don't know if Drake does the work. How much are these icons contributing to the musical culture that's giving them their fame? Music has just become a platform to become famous. People don't even pick their own music anymore. They select play lists and these songs that are designed to get in your ear. It's really a reflection of our society. When I travel to other countries, Europe and Asia, they just listen to the music. They have their pop music, but it's not this dominant force that tells them what to drink & eat, how to dress. I've been to places in Germany and France and the whole town comes just to see you play—not just perform the latest pop song. They come to hear music.

AAJ: These days pop is just another piece of media that entertains you for a few minutes. Nothing to think deeply about.

TC: With my band—and I'm really enjoying what we're doing right now —it's all so organic. It's bliss when folks are really listening. We just did a gig at the Jazz Standard And the audiences were really great. People were listening, and enjoying the show. Sometimes they even put down their phones!

Painting by Keith Henry Brown




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