Theo Croker: It's Just Black Music

Keith Henry Brown By

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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..."



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