With the release of his album Star People Nation on May 17, American trumpeter Theo Croker spoke to us about his unexpected collaboration with Roy Hargrove, his grandfather – the trumpeter Doc Cheatham – and the lessons he received by telephone from Wynton Marsalis, Clarke Terry, Al Grey and Baden Powell ...
Coming from a background of classical jazz crossed with aspects of hip-hop and more contemporary urban sounds (“Understand Yourself” feat. Chronixx), this latest album is a fairly logical continuation of Escape Velocity (2016) and Afro Physicist (2014), where the spirit of live music always dominates.
A political album?
Contrary to the political accents that are perhaps contained within the title Star People Nation, Theo Croker refuses to enter into this easy “hype” that he sees many musicians devoting themselves to according to. “I know that many people use jazz to spice up their music, politically, but don’t give back to it because they don’t learn it and don’t respect the masters or their ancestors.”
When asked about his music and the demand for it within the political climate of his country, the musician replies categorically: for him, nothing has changed. While America opts for measures that accentuate discrimination against certain communities, racism has always existed. “I’m not surprised by the United States right now. This is nothing new. America is a racist country, built on slavery. Now we have a president who deliberately elects to feed the discourse of these kinds of people, those who would prefer to live in a racist society. The rest of the world is simply becoming more aware of it.”
Family and inspiration
While his new album Star People Nation (Okeh/Sony) marks the end of a long journey that officially began in November 2016, it is also the result of a more distant past. Theo Croker waited until he was thirty-three to record the album’s fifth track, “Portrait of William,” a tribute he first composed at the age of eighteen in response to the death of his father William Henry Croker, a fervent defender of the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King.
His grandfather, the legendary trumpeter and conductor Doc Cheatham (1905-1997), a member of Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway’s big bands, was clearly also a major influence on him. Yet this influence manifested itself late: “It was when I started to play that I understood who he was. I discovered that my grandfather was connected to the vast world of jazz.”
Though he stridently rejects privileged treatment, his Grandfather’s status nevertheless gave him childhood access to musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Clarke Terry, Al Grey and Baden Powell – “When I was twelve years old, I had these guys on the phone, and they started giving me lessons!”
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From beginnings in China to Dee Dee Bridgewater
Theo Croker has been able to build his own personal identity whilst surrounded by his elders and by mentors who mark his journey. In 2006, he went into exile in China for seven years. In Shanghai, he was offered the opportunity to play six days a week in a club. This is unusual in New York, where, for the vast majority, only jams and music schools allow people to express themselves without living on music. “I’m a trumpeter, I’m the last person you need to have in your group. So I decided that I wanted to be a leader.” And fate was on his side.
While he was in rehearsals in Shanghai, the singer Dee Dee Dee Bridgewater entered the room. Intrigued by a familiar face and by the only other person of colour among the musicians present that day, she addressed Theo Croker directly: “You look like someone I know, tell me about your family.” The young trumpeter mentioned the name of his grandfather, the musician Doc Cheatham, with whom he shares – in addition to his talent – certain physical traits. Without missing any of his performances and various projects, the singer inspired him to return to the United States. She was determined to help him and wanted to produce his music.
From their collaboration, the album Afro Physicist was born in 2014, on which Roy Hagrove appeared, a real source of inspiration: “Roy Hargrove’s presence on Afro Physicist wasn’t really planned, it was luck! We were recording and I decided to call Roy. I told him that we were recording one of his songs, and that I would give him room if he wanted to sing. He asked me “how do you know I can sing?” Two hours later, he was at the studio. Every time I played behind him, singing, I thought it was surreal, it was incredible!”
Theo Croker – Star People Nation (Okeh/Sony)