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Theo Croker Steps Out

The stylish young trumpeter—grandson to the late Doc Cheatham, mentored by the great Dee Dee Bridgewater—is putting his own stamp on jazz

Theo Croker
Theo Croker (photo: Jati Lindsay)

Midway through June, trumpeter Theo Croker worked four nights at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard behind Star People Nation, his third release on DDB, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Sony-licensed imprint. The self-produced, elaborately programmatic recital ran Croker “upwards of $50,000,” topping the $28,000 he spent on its 2017 predecessor, Escape Velocity, produced by drummer Kassa Overall. Both albums comprise Croker originals that reference and meld elements from swing, postbop, hip-hop, soul, funk, and different West African strains; on both, he 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. The sensibility matches what Nicholas Payton—who in 1996 recorded a two-trumpet album with Croker’s grandfather, Doc Cheatham—might describe as “Black American Music,” or B.A.M.

“Who doesn’t thrive off controversy?…If you don’t, you’re not comfortable with yourself. A Love Supreme isn’t a museum piece. 

Only mics and amps were plugged in at the Jazz Standard. “I don’t need any bells and whistles in real time,” Croker explained a few days before. “The intensity of the music speaks for itself.” That description pinpoints the ambience of the first night’s first set, featuring pianist Michael King, bassist Russell Hall, and drummer Michael Ode. Croker wore a black wool hat over his dreadlocks, tan Spliffy jeans, a Jean-Michel Basquiat-logoed Comme des Garçons sweatshirt, and tennis shoes, no socks.

To start, Croker sang an introductory poem to “Have You Come to Stay,” titled for a phrase from Eugene McDaniel’s lyric for “Hello to the Wind” on Bobby Hutcherson’s 1969 album Now. He’d described the piece as “a call to accept who you are, to embrace the vibrating voice of the trumpet, your most powerful tool.” It leads off Star People Nation, on which he samples several heavily manipulated bars from that track, adding his own chord changes. Live, though, he pronounced the words using plangent long tones. King’s florid variations set up a trumpet solo that opened with pointillistic laser darts, then morphed into long, chromatic lines, punctuated with well-calibrated overtones.

Croker observed that King and Ode are fellow alumni of Oberlin Conservatory of Music, which, he added pointedly, “has seven musicians with record deals—more than Juilliard.” Then he introduced “The Messenger,” an Elvin Jones homage evocative of Cal Massey’s ’60s showcases for Lee Morgan. “I wanted to make a record with two sides,” Croker said, directing his comments to a contingent from Sony on the room’s east wall banquettes. “One side was futuristic; the other was straight-ahead swing, but the concept didn’t fly—the corporate guys only wanted material they thought was marketable digitally.”

The set concluded with the anthemic “Understand Yourself,” which, on the album, features Reggae Revival luminary Chronixx rendering a reconfigured speech by Marcus Garvey. But before that “forward-thinking” climax, Croker addressed the ballad “Never Let Me Go,” a favorite of Roy Hargrove, his consequential mentor, who frequently performed the Nat Cole hit live. In Hargrove’s manner, Croker channeled the timbre of a plaintive human voice through his metal instrument, then phrased the lyric with an instrumentalist’s nuance.

Here on a live stage, without technological help or production flourishes, the intensity of the music was clear indeed, as was the complexity of its prime creator. Both in his playing and in his remarks, Croker tapped into a wide spectrum of emotions, influences, and attitudes. And that was just one set.

Theo Croker

In 2008, one year out of Oberlin, Croker made In the Tradition (Arbors), a recital of 13 tunes associated with his grandfather, which he addressed idiomatically and with creative flair. “I knew Doc very well as a grandfather, but not as a musician until the last two years of his life, when I picked up the trumpet,” Croker recalled. “I took to the instrument naturally, and my parents sent him videotapes of me playing and practicing. He wrote me letters about things to work on, sent me books and recordings. But Doc’s biggest musical impact came from people he helped, like Nicholas and Roy, Clark Terry, Warren Vache, and Wynton Marsalis. They spent a lot of time with me when I was a teenager, because my grandfather had done that with them.”

When Croker was 13, ex-Basie trombonists Al Grey and Benny Powell invited him to sit in on a blues at the 1998 New Orleans Jazz Festival. “I knew melodies, but then they were like, ‘Improvise,’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know how to solo.’ ‘You’re about to learn.’ Al Grey made me take 15 or 16 choruses. I spent time that week in New Orleans with Christian Scott and other students from NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] who my grandfather had workshopped. Christian showed me blues scales—stuff I wasn’t getting in school.”

A year later, Croker left his Leesburg, Fla., home to attend Jacksonville’s Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. At first he lived with a friend’s family, then boarded with two youngish teachers who hired him to play their local shows. “I spent a lot of time not studying English or science or mathematics,” Croker says. “Instead I hung out in the dance hall, where the practice rooms had pianos. I’d write music, study the piano, which I was teaching myself to play, and practice trumpet.”

He turned down a Juilliard scholarship to matriculate at Oberlin, attracted by the faculty presence of Donald Byrd. “Oberlin is a school of freethinkers,” Croker says. “At Juilliard, it was more, ‘You’re going to learn this and play this, or you won’t achieve mastery in jazz.’ But Roy Hargrove showed that the truth is completely opposite. He was never a purist in any sense—although he always advocated that black musicians continue to learn and excel in the language of bebop. I think my personal life goal as a musician is to really be able to play bebop.”

At Oberlin, Croker—a self-described “swing snob”—made an immediate impression. “During Theo’s freshman year I took a semester off,” Overall recalls. “Everybody was telling me I had to play with him. Then Theo called to ask me to be in his combo next semester. That’s what you do in New York as a professional musician; Theo was doing it for combo class. He always had a concept, a beautiful sound and a melodic approach—the same things he has now, just more developed.

“That semester when I was away, Theo did a tribute to A Love Supreme, which Wynton had done and Branford was doing,” Overall continues. “Some people were saying he was the best trumpet player, but a counter group was talking shit, like, ‘Who does he think he is?’ Theo always had a controversial element to his approach and decisions. I think he even feeds off of that.”

“Who doesn’t thrive off controversy?” Croker responds. “If you don’t, you’re not comfortable with yourself. A Love Supreme isn’t a museum piece. Spiritually we were all interested in it, and it has a lot of power. When we played it in China with my band, the entire audience would be silent the whole time.”                   

Theo Croker
Theo Croker at Doc Cheatham Memorial, St. Peter’s Church, June 8, 1997. (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Croker went to China in 2007, soon after graduating from Oberlin and moving to New York. He settled into the East Harlem apartment that Cheatham had passed along to his family, where Croker had already spent quality time on periodic sojourns during undergraduate years.

“It was hard,” Croker says of his pursuit of a niche in the New York jazz scene. But he also felt as if he was part of a tight-knit community. He recounted a jam session routine that began uptown at the now-defunct St. Nick’s Pub and Lenox Lounge, moved two miles south to Cleopatra’s Needle, and then downtown to Smalls and Blue Niagara in the wee hours. “I’d run that circuit with Roy. If you didn’t know or couldn’t play the tunes, people would encourage you. The vibe was, ‘Here, let me show you something,’ not ‘Nah, you can’t come in here.’”

By this point, Croker had self-released The Fundamentals, displaying his command of hardcore jazz styles that spanned, among other things, mid-’60s Blue Note, Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes (From the Underground) and Think in the South periods, the Harrison/Blanchard group, and Hargrove’s quintet music.

“It had a lot of success digitally,” Croker says. It also prompted Shanghai’s House of Blues and Jazz to invite Croker to assemble a New York band for a three-month engagement, six nights a week, three shows a night. “I got halfway down my list before I found people willing to leave New York for that long,” he says. “I guess in New York you’ve got to wait in line. I’d be waiting in line, too—but I had to eat, and my father had passed. He set up my mother to be taken care of. But for me and my brother it was, ‘You all are grown; you’re on your own.’ I had debt from school and bills. So I took the work.”

Between 2007 and 2010, Croker shuttled between Shanghai and New York. “I’d take a six-month contract, save all the money, come back, and live in New York for four months until I spent it all,” he says. After a while, he began to eschew contracts to take advantage of the freelance opportunities presented by Shanghai’s boom economy. “There was so much work—festivals, club dates, more opportunities than musicians. In order to live, I had to play anything I could.” He formed the 15-piece Afrosonic Orchestra and sidemanned in a salsa band, in an Afro-Mauritian band of non-readers that played “a lot of time changes and key changes by ear,” and in two big bands.

“I got addicted to working six, seven, eight shows a week,” Croker says. “It helped my embouchure and my ear—and I was happy. I could see the culture outside the context of America. No jazz police, no elders—my mind opened completely. Initially I wanted to play swing. Hip-hop was cool; if we’re going to play that, then let’s play that. Learning the link between the cultures of swing and hip-hop changed my life.”

Theo Croker                                   

In 2010, JZ Club brought Dee Dee Bridgewater to its Shanghai festival to play with its house big band. Recently back in China from an uninspiring New York stay, Croker lobbied for the gig, and got it. At rehearsal, Bridgewater noticed “this young man with a great sound on trumpet who was featured so much—I sought him out.”

“She stayed four more days,” Croker says. “We hung out every day. She saw me with all kinds of groups. I did the after-show at the club, and she sat in for an hour—‘All Blues,’ ‘Georgia,’ ‘Autumn Leaves.’” Soon thereafter, Croker gave Bridgewater an iPod containing “hundreds of shows” by his various bands. When she returned to Shanghai a few months later, he remembers, “she told me she wanted to produce a record to get me into the U.S. and international markets—but I had to move back to the States when it was released.” Noting his charts for the Afrosonic band, Bridgewater told him, “We’re going to take you out of the jazz-straight-ahead box; it’s shifting, we want to get you on what the shift is.”

The end result was Afro-Physicist, on which Bridgewater sings several numbers. Soon thereafter, she gave her band six months’ notice, replaced them with Croker’s group, and made him her musical director. “I put Theo at the helm to give him exposure,” Bridgewater says. “He’s an outstanding composer who writes melodies I’d hear once and start humming. Our performance transitioned from doing my jazz stuff to more fusion things, which I thought fit his music better. Then we got into my records from the ’70s, and did a mish-mosh of everything.”

From then until he began touring on his own in 2015, Croker received a postgraduate education in professional musicianship. “Dee Dee gave me a platform to keep a band that was working a lot,” Croker says. “We learned how to travel; how to play with no sleep. At the time, she had some ridiculous tour schedules—we learned to exist in these different environments. When she did press or meet-and-greet, she’d request that I accompany her. So I learned how to deal on an international level with press and promoters, with different venues and presenters.

“Most singers want you out of their way,” he continued, “but Dee Dee likes the horn player to be interactive. There was a lot of improvisation and exchange, answering her and feeding her ideas. If what you play doesn’t have a purpose, it will stick out.”

Bridgewater also emphasized the importance of self-presentation to her band of young musicians. “The audience is there to look at you and listen to you,” she says. “It’s important for an artist to be conscious of their image—and Theo is fashion-conscious like Miles Davis was fashion-conscious.”

“Dee Dee allowed us to dress fashionably on gigs,” Croker said during our second conversation, from the Los Angeles digs where he currently spends much of his down time. “She showed that your style can constantly evolve, that you can mix and match. Asia—really, Japan—is where I did a lot of my shopping and developed my style. One brand, Dent de Man, sent me a whole collection—modern African wear.”

Croker states that these preoccupations influenced neither the Star People Nation album title nor his recent decision to start spending quality time in the epicenter of star culture. “I spent 2015 and 2016 more on the road and in Europe and Asia than I did in New York, so I didn’t really live anywhere. I get a high from touring. I take well to the lifestyle—being transient, not attached to a place or a specific group of people or a language or culture and open to whatever comes next. Every day on the road, you go through so many things, you flow through so many cultures. Your life is playing music—the whole point is to get there and to perform.

“In 2017 I went to L.A. eight or nine times,” he added. “I started to be able to relax, slow down and focus. Now I have time to sit in the crib for days and work on music, and I’ve been able to get into different studios and start working on music in a different way. If I’m on tour, I don’t worry about how I’ll pay my rent at the end of the month. I like the L.A. lifestyle, too—the weather, the great food culture. I go to performance art–based events, different galleries and museums, whereas in New York I’m always distracted by the music.”

“Some people are so traditional as to be stifling, but a lot of young people who are ignorant of or uninterested in the tradition mix things in a way that has some holes.”

As we spoke, Croker—who had recently played a local gig alongside Bennie Maupin—was completing a half-dozen big-band charts for a 2020 concert at Zankel Hall. He’d spent much of early 2019 on the road, and a three-month tour with the quartet would follow in September. He was pondering “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.”

“I have a huge repertoire in my band,” Croker said. “But I can only get so much out to the public and into the industry unless we flood the market. I don’t want to confuse people about who I am or what I’m about—though maybe they can handle it now. I have yet to reach a point where I have a clean slate creatively and musically, along with some platform to express it with. My career is constantly playing catchup to my creativity, not the other way around.”

Croker acknowledged the sonic disjunction between his live and recorded musical production. One reason for touring unplugged is pragmatic: the cost and logistical complexity of live-mixing acoustic and electronically amplified instruments. But another is his affinity for the jazz mainstem. As his creative sensibility evolves, it will guide what he mixes and matches.

“Some people are so traditional as to be stifling,” Croker said. “But a lot of young people who are ignorant of or uninterested in the tradition mix things in a way that has some holes. The people who’ve broken the most ground—Roy Hargrove, Robert Glasper—knew the tradition. When they branch off, all of that is in there. That’s why it’s had such a profound effect. The music should always continue to evolve, but it should never lose its tradition. That doesn’t mean you have to play swing. But if you can’t swing, your hip-hop is going to sound funny—to me.”

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.