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Theo Croker: A Global Jazz Sensation in the Making

SOURCE: Published: 2008-06-20
Theo Croker Brenda Bradley of Exalt Entertainment Group interviews International up and coming favorite Theo Croker about his thoughts on the jazz industry and future plans.

What do you believe is behind your growing international audience?

Well, for one thing, winning the Presser Foundation Award and being able to use the funding for my first recording, The Fundamentals, gave me a lot of artistic freedom. I was also able to independently distribute to international radio for airplay. And the response was great. I got a lot of feedback on my style and the way I expressed my musical ideas. Those audiences seem to take jazz very seriously and it seems they just felt what I did. I was surprised when e-mails came in from so many places, like Australia, the Dutch Coast, and the U.K telling me they were listening. Being able to play at festivals that attract international attention like the JVCJazz Festival has helped. Working around the globe is a big plus. I've spent the better part of the last nine months working in Shanghai. A lot of global tourists come through there. Most recently, I've been in London and Egypt. Soon I'll be back in the U.S. for a five concert series at the Rubin Museum. One thing is for sure. Working with some of the best musicians alive gets noticed. And I have benefited from that.

What is your most significant accomplishment and why?

My most significant “accomplishment" is continuously unfolding in the development of my own compositional and improvisational sound. Too many musicians sound alike. We all incorporate elements of those we admire, but you have to go a step further and develop your unique artistry. My grandfather used to tell me, “You have to sound like “YOU". At the end of my life, I see achieving that as my most significant accomplishment. What else is there other than creating your own voice? Who and what are the artistic influences that have most affected you and how?

Who and what are the artistic influences that have most affected you and how?

The list of influences goes on for days! As far as trumpet playing I would say that Doc Cheatham, Miles Davis, Dr. Donald Byrd, Marcus Belgrave, Dr. Wendell Logan, and Wynton Marsalis were all the most influential to me. Of course there are all the other greats: Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Newman, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown, Duke Ellington, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, Warren Vache, Jimmy Owens, John Faddis, Roy Hargrove.... and all the Jazz greats. Doc, Miles, Byrd, Marcus, and Wynton all have tremendously beautiful sounds! I identify them as my strongest influences because they actively took part in my development, excluding Miles, who I'm too young to know.

Doc, naturally, was the first trumpet I ever heard. I was always amazed by his accuracy (even before knowing anything about music) and the sweetness of his sound still warms my soul to this day. His melodic phrasing is something I'm still discovering. It has influences from Louis Armstrong to Clifford Brown!

Dr. Donald Byrd would be next. Donald was a HUGE influence on me. I learned from and hung out with him while studying at Oberlin Conservatory. He's one of the most brilliant artistic minds I have ever known. He taught me so much about composition and arranging but always stressed individuality. It was amazing to spend so much time with such a legendary man. It impacted my musical personality deeply.

Continuing with my college experience would bring me to Dr. Wendell Logan and Marcus Belgrave. Most people go to college and study with teachers. I never liked the idea of music school but when I realized I would be studying with actual, legendary jazz performers and composers I had to go. Both Dr. Logan and Marcus were huge influences on my development as a performer, composer, and musician. Dr. Logan is a great band leader and composer. He always had something for me to re-work or explore but always let me be myself.

Marcus Belgrave taught me how to play changes! When I arrived at Oberlin I didn't know the first thing about harmony other than what I heard. We spent countless hours at pianos, lunches, dinners, late night hangs, his place, my place, bars, and so on discussing music and life. Marcus is the most brilliant trumpet player I know. His approach to improvising is unique. He doesn't sound like anybody....ANYBODY! And he never repeats himself. He is a true jazz musician. In addition to music he taught me valuable lessons about life, relationships, money, people, traveling, health.....the list goes on and on. I owe Marcus a lot to my existence as the person I am today.

Wynton Marsalis has influenced and looked after me since I was about fifteen years old. He was always on me about learning and doing things the right way. He never cut me any slack and never boosted my ego. He always told me like it was: The dead honest hard truth. When I started to come into my own (and I mean started because I'm still on that journey) he never hesitated to help. He is still a great help. He is someone who I can always call from anywhere in the world and anytime and ask for anything. That's a great mentor to have.

Miles Davis was Miles Davis. I really don't think there is anything I could say that hasn't been said or that isn't obvious. He is one of the greatest trumpet players and musicians ever. And he always sounds like Miles! No matter what he was playing, Be-bop, pop, rock, funk, he always sounded like MILES! What are the most significant differences you see between the circumstances of artists today and the legends you revere?

The level of musicianship, changes in the recording and radio industry, and how much the common man understands jazz are very different now. All of these issues go hand in hand. I don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg. Most record labels and the radio industry are not interested in the level of musicianship anymore. They exist to make money. There are labels that do continue to focus on art, but for the most part, their impact is small. The focus has shifted from quality to marketability. They make superstars out of anybody they choose and market them as artists. It's not about music or art anymore. The average person doesn't know good from bad anymore. The radio industry is as responsible for this as record labels. Back in the days of the legends, you had to reach a certain level of artistry and musicianship before you were a professional. Now with the Internet and CDs anybody can decide they are an artist without going through the process of actually becoming one. Times are rough.

Where do you see the future of jazz going and what do you think is affecting any changes you see?

There will always be a future in Jazz. Jazz will never “get old" or “out of style" because all forms of popular music is just small pieces taken from Jazz. The institutionalization of Jazz is both a good and bad thing. Jazz education in universities is also a good and bad thing. The Internet is playing a huge role in the development of artist. I think there will be more incorporation of other styles into jazz which will create new sounds. Exploration of new styles will result in people reaching back into the past of this music. While I am a supporter of furthering the exploration of Jazz for new creative possibilities, the possibilities of past forms and ideals have not been fully exhausted. I see us looking back as much as moving forward.

What are your priorities for your musical career and why?

My musical career priorities are to obtain the highest level of musicianship possible. I prioritize learning old and new forms. Exploring new possibilities, studying and reworking old proven methods, and continuing to develop my ideals of how I want my music to sound. How I want people to hear it. I want to collaborate with many musicians from many genres old and young. I want to do my part to share my views and ideals in educating those that come behind me. Ultimately, I want immersion in the artistic process from beginning to end.

What advice would you give other young musicians considering music as a profession?

Work Hard and never give up on what you believe. Learn as much as possible and seek out the artist you like and respect and develop relationships with them. It's not up to anyone but you to learn. Chose your own career path and set your own goals. Don't worry about or get involved in competing with other people. Create your own network of artists of all kinds who share your artistic ideals and work closely with them. They will become your most valuable asset. And most importantly, as I've always been told, “Don't get discouraged"!


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