Theo Croker is a ‘Catalyst for Action’

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The development of Star People Nation—the first album in which Theo Croker has sole producer credit—involved an 18-month journey to both U.S. coasts and multiple recording studios, where he played auxiliary keyboards and synths, crafted electronic and acoustic beats, incorporated samples and wrote lyrics to be sung by himself and special guests.

(Photo: Steve Sussman)

It’s a Wednesday night, and a capacity crowd has filled Mr. Musichead, a spacious gallery on The Sunset Strip in Hollywood owned by Sam Milgrom, who in another life was a well-known jazz promoter in Detroit.

On the walls around and above the rapt throng are photographs of musicians—Bob Marley, Herbie Hancock, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, even Gene Simmons sans makeup. In a corner are a number of rare prints from famed jazz photojournalist Herman Leonard (including his iconic shot of Dexter Gordon).

Yet the artwork goes unnoticed, because at this moment, all eyes are drawn to the back of the gallery, where a slender fellow with tinted spectacles is spewing fire from his trumpet. The tune is “A Shade Of Jade” by Joe Henderson, delivered gracefully at a brisk tempo by the band, whose members all call Los Angeles home. As the song concludes, trumpeter/bandleader Theo Croker receives the type of ovation normally reserved for artists who visit the City of Angels from New York. He lives here now, having paid plenty of professional dues in New York and Shanghai, China, where he spent the better part of a decade honing both his trumpet chops and his business acumen, eventually becoming something of an entertainment mogul. That success allowed for a triumphant return to America, thanks in no small part to singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who met Croker while traveling in Asia and hired him to be her musical director, and whose endorsement of him paved the way for a record deal with Sony.

Coker’s performance at Mr. Musichead included material from Star People Nation (Sony Masterworks), his fifth album overall. Adding to the stack of hats the accomplished trumpeter now wears are those of a versatile multi-instrumentalist, genre-blending producer, influential entrepreneur and astute commentator on racial identity. The development of the album—the first in which he has sole producer credit—involved an 18-month journey to both U.S. coasts and multiple recording studios, where he played auxiliary keyboards and synths, crafted electronic and acoustic beats and other percussion, incorporated samples and wrote lyrics to be sung by himself and his special guests, Los Angeles-based vocalist Rose Gold and Jamaican reggae artist Chronixx. The program offers a virtual candy store of sonic flavor and color, illuminating Croker’s ability to blend layers of music and lyrics with the deft touch of a hip-hop producer and the spontaneity of a jazz trumpeter.

Some of that ability could be genetic: Croker is the grandson of Adolphus Anthony “Doc” Cheatham (1905–’97), a legendary trumpeter and early jazz pioneer to whom he subtly bears a resemblance. That innate talent was honed by Croker as a student at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. His early mentors included trumpeters Marcus Belgrave and Donald Byrd, as well as saxophonist Gary Bartz.

“Theo’s always been a go-getter—he’s always been a catalyst for action,” said drummer Kassa Overall, who met Croker at Oberlin, joined him on tour with Bridgewater and contributed to Star People Nation. Back in his Oberlin days, Croker called Overall out of the blue months ahead of the start of classes, wanting to ensure his combo included the best drummer on campus. “You gotta be creative on and off the stage,” Overall said. “Theo [frequently] was getting ready to put something out, a project or a band, booking shows, making things happen, putting things together.”

Overall elaborated, noting that Croker’s sense of initiative has had an impact on him as a bandleader, composer and producer: “What you bring to music, you have to take that same creativity and bring it to everything if you’re going to make it happen ... . I’ve taken a lot away from [observing Croker], working with him and watching how he deals with people.”

DownBeat caught up with Croker on a sunny April afternoon at the Gallery Bar in the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Below are edited excerpts from the lively, wide-ranging conversation.

Let’s start with your famous grandfather. What do you remember about Doc?

I remember him being a really sweet dude. Very patient. Always humming and singing. He moved very slow; he was so old. Musically, I remember seeing him play six or seven times. I remember seeing him play at Sweet Basil [in New York]. I must have been like 7 or 8 ... . But just from seeing him play, I remember how flawless he was. He was so crystal clear, his ideas, his tone, his sound, he was, like, this super old man, super slow, skinny, but when he would play, it’s kinda like that didn’t matter.

What got you to thinking about leaving New York and moving somewhere else?

We would tour so much: One time we toured with Dee Dee for almost four months. So, just look at the bills you pay to say you live in New York ... . New York can make you feel like you’re barely making it—not the music scene, just New York itself. Now, I have a rent-control apartment in New York, so it wasn’t as bad as it could be, but eventually I decided I needed a different type of lifestyle. I needed a higher-quality lifestyle.

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