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Tue May 20, 2014
Music

Heir To A Jazz Legacy, A Trumpeter Finds His Own Way

Originally published on Wed May 21, 2014 10:20 am

Jazz composer and trumpeter Theo Croker opens his new album, AfroPhysicist, with an ode to his grandfather: New Orleans jazz great Doc Cheatham. The thing is, Croker didn't grow up in New Orleans or any other jazz hub. He's from Jacksonville, Fla., and he was just a child when his grandfather died in 1997. It wasn't until his grandfather's memorial services — attended by jazz legends — that he decided to join the legacy.

"I didn't understand what a legacy was," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "I just wanted to play the trumpet 'cause it was loud. I was a 12-year-old going to jazz concerts and listening to jazz CDs. It was very strange."

Croker went on to study at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory. One of his early gigs out of school took him down an unexpected path — to Shanghai, and a new approach.

"For the longest time I was a jazz purist," Croker says. "When I left the United States and I would see how people started to react to different kinds of music, then I started to become influenced by other kinds of music."

He stayed in China for almost seven years, where he played with everyone — jazz ensembles, salsa bands, DJs — and met legendary jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who produces and sings on AfroPhysicist. Hear more about where those early connections took his career at the audio link, and check out a handpicked playlist of songs that have influenced him, available now on Spotify.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish.

And on his new album "AfroPhysicist," jazz composer and trumpeter Theo Croker opens with an ode to his grandfather, New Orleans jazz great, Doc Cheatham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: But the thing is Crocker, he didn't grow up in New Orleans or any other jazz hub, he's from Leesburg, Florida that he was just a kid when his grandfather died in 1997. It wasn't until his grandfather's Memorial services, attended by jazz legends that Theo Crocker decided to join the legacy.

THEO CROCKER: I didn't understand what a legacy was. I just wanted to play the trumpet 'cause it was loud. I would just put out records of anybody and play along and a lot of times I would be able to figure out what they played. I just knew that my ear was working, so that was a lot of me standing in front of the mirror in a bath towel emulating trumpet sounds when I'm supposed to be in the shower.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Was there a song of your grandfather's that you loved?

CROCKER: I have my favorite is one called "I'll Never Be the Same."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER BE THE SAME")

CROCKER: It's just him and a piano player named Butch Thompson and just, it's so clear, it's so dignified.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER BE THE SAME")

CROCKER: I think he was 89 or something on this recording. I just think he sounds amazing on it. So a whole new world opened up. You know, before that I wanted to be an astronaut or something...

CORNISH: Which makes sense for a kid in Florida, I should say.

(LAUGHTER)

CROCKER: Yeah. Oh, I went to the space camps, all those sorts of things, but the music just kind of opened up a whole other side of my personality in my brain in a way. So it was an amazing experience and again, when you're that age you don't really know what you're getting into, you just know you like it. You know, I was a 12-year-old going to jazz concerts listening to jazz CDs, you know, at the jazz section in the mall. It's very strange.

CORNISH: Croaker went on to study at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory. He was on the straight and narrow, jazz wise and then one of his early gigs out of school took him down an unexpected path to Shanghai and a new approach.

CROCKER: You know, for the longest time I was a jazz purist, especially when I left the United States and I would see how people started to react to different kinds of music, then I started to become influenced by other kinds of music. So especially like funk and fusion and then...

CORNISH: But what was your beef at the time? You said you're a jazz purist.

CROCKER: I'm not. I used to be. It was...

CORNISH: You used to be. I know, like what was the stance?

CROCKER: That was the trend. That was the Wynton Marsalis era where everybody wanted to wear suits and ties and play music that's really old and be dignified and classy - or that was the only view of dignified and classy that was successful. That was in the '90s and the early thousands. I was a kid I went with the flow.

CORNISH: Mm-hmm.

(LAUGHTER)

CROCKER: Now I want to wear, you know, something hip and feel relaxed and free.

CORNISH: The saga did feel like you had a funkier fine, at least, was "Light Skinned Beauty."

CROCKER: Yes. Definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT SKINNED BEAUTY")

CROCKER: You know, it started off as a demo and then I just kind of held it for a few years and one day a melody came out.

CORNISH: A few years?

CROCKER: Yeah. A lot of the music on this record was written years ago. For me, that's just the process, you write it when it comes, you used when it's needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT SKINNED BEAUTY")

CORNISH: After Oberlin, you went to China for seven years.

CROCKER: Yes, just about, yeah.

CORNISH: Well, that's a long time. Why?

CROCKER: Why not? I wanted to get out and I didn't want to go through a process and wait for somebody to decide it was time for me to tour or travel. I wanted to travel now and an opportunity came up to me to take an entire band to Shanghai to play at The House of Blues and Jazz there, so that kind of opportunity to play was a way to really learn your craft that I think is kind of missing from the American scene especially.

CORNISH: What did I do for your music? I mean were you in affect hopping from genre to genre?

CROCKER: Yes. I remember there was one day where I did eight shows in one day.

CORNISH: Yikes.

CROCKER: And the way the schedule was it was so tight that I had to get a driver in order to successfully make it from each gig to the next gig one time. It was everything from the large group ensemble that's featured on the record to playing like "Real Lies" and "I Can't Help It" that I had to go play a show with a salsa band and I had to play a show with a DJ. Then I...

CORNISH: Wait. Did you say salsa?

CROCKER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I struggled in a salsa band for years to try to play those rhythms and it's very very difficult.

One vocalist who is on the album is Dee Dee Bridgewater.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T HELP IT")

DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) Looking in my mirror.

CORNISH: You met her in China, which is crazy to me.

CROCKER: Yes.

CORNISH: Like you ended up going halfway around the world to meet someone who arguably you could have met a lot sooner.

CROCKER: Right. Well, this was the payoff to letting go mentally of like oh, I need to be in New York that I need to be around on the scene and I need to, you know, play at cafes for $30 and stuff like that, that just didn't seem right to me. When I finally decided to stay in Shanghai, next thing I know I'm getting calls to back up Dee Dee Bridgewater.

CORNISH: And then you have a lot of fun with her with the song "I Can't Help It."

CROCKER: Yes.

CORNISH: Which is actually a cover of the Michael Jackson song.

CROCKER: Yup. Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, I believe wrote it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T HELP IT")

BRIDGEWATER: (Singing) I can't help it if I wanted to. Wouldn't help it, no. (Scatting)

CORNISH: I have to admit, I didn't even recognize the song when I first heard her singing it. Like I thought it was a great song but like didn't make the connection...

CROCKER: Right.

CORNISH: ...of Michael Jackson.

CROCKER: You know, this specific song I think has become very popular with my age group and it's become like a standard.

CORNISH: In jazz, you're saying.

CROCKER: Yeah. In the jazz...

CORNISH: Really?

CROCKER: Well, instrumentalists that's studying harmony and things, this is a song that you can put into a lot of formats. You know, Stevie Wonder's music is incredibly hip and complex harmonically, so his music is it's involved, like you have to know and understand harmony on an advanced level to play a lot of his tunes correctly, and this is one of them. So it kind of developed. It was an idea in my head and typically with something like this I let it, you know, bounce around in my head for a few days or a few weeks or sometimes months and then when it's all complete in my head when I can, you know, take a shower and single whole idea from start to finish, then I go write it down.

CORNISH: So you - in the shower.

(LAUGHTER)

CROCKER: Yeah.

CORNISH: That's like when you were a little kid stalling before your showers and you're still doing that.

CROCKER: Yes. I still do that. I still make lots of sounds with my mouth and hands and feet and, you know, if you think I'm crazy, I guess if I wasn't a professional.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Theo Crocker, he joined us from our LA bureau. Thanks so much for talking with us.

CROCKER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Theo Crocker's latest album is called "AfroPhysicist." We've been asking musicians to send us their 12 favorite songs that influence their music. You can hear Crocker's playlist and others on Spotify. Search for @npratc. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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