Artist Spotlight: Theo Croker

The cosmically minded Star People Nation artist blends jazz, fusion, bebop, and hip-hop

Theo Croker at the Roy Hargrove Musical Celebration
Theo Croker at the Roy Hargrove Musical Celebration, Jan. 8, 2019 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Musically adventurous, unafraid to test genre boundaries, and always ultra-stylish, trumpeter Theo Croker offers a musically enlightened take on funk, postbop, and fusion.

Born in 1985 in Leesburg, Florida, Croker is the grandson of Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Doc Cheatham. He is a three-time Echo Award nominee, as well as a Theodore Presser Award recipient.

Although Croker grew up among jazz musicians and studied with even more at Oberlin College, he counts Dee Dee Bridgewater as his principal mentor. He met the famed vocalist in 2010 after landing a gig playing in her backing band during one of his several long stints as a trumpeter for hire in Shanghai. While in China, Croker was exploring several different genres—salsa, fusion-rock, R&B, hip-hop, blues—to broaden his musical horizons.

Croker’s playing at the gig got Bridgewater’s attention, and she was even more impressed after he gave her an iPod containing recordings of shows by his various bands. When she returned to Shanghai a few months later, she told Croker she wanted to produce his next album, which would be aimed at the U.S. and international markets.

The end result was 2014’s Afro-Physicist, on which Bridgewater sings several numbers.

Soon after, Bridgewater gave her band six months’ notice, replaced them with Croker’s group, and made him her musical director. From then until he began touring on his own in 2015, Croker received a postgraduate education in professional musicianship.

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Three more records followed—all released on Bridgewater’s own DDB Records label—that veered away from the traditional jazz Croker had performed on his first two albums, 2006’s The Fundamentals and 2009’s In the Tradition.

Croker’s two most recent albums, Escape Velocity (2016) and Star People Nation (2019), comprise original compositions that reference and meld elements from swing, postbop, hip-hop, soul, funk, and various West African strains.

On both, Croker frames his golden tone and harmonically erudite lines with layers of textured keyboards, ethereal synths, bespoke samples, polyrhythmic drum beats, and insinuating voices in ways that illuminate their melodic core.

Looking ahead, Croker is preparing for a 2020 concert at Zankel Hall in New York after spending much of 2019 touring. There’s more music on the way, but not even he knows what fans can expect. He told JazzTimes he has “three or four records in the can that I’d love to release, from straight-ahead to covers to traditional things, but also a straight R&B/hip-hop type record.”

More on Theo Croker from JazzTimes 

A Conversation With Theo Croker

Theo Croker: Afro-Physicist

More on Theo Croker from Around the Web

Theo Croker Brings His ‘Star People Nation’ to Our Studio, Before a Run at Jazz Standard– WBGO

The Sound of New York: Theo Croker– EuroArts

Theo Croker: Star People Nation — modern jazz with a club culture edge– Financial Times