Air Date: December 2, 2017
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. “Since the 1950’s, the Newport Jazz Festival has offered a reliable read on the spinal center of jazz.” That’s what the New York Times reported in this year’s write-up of the annual event in Rhode Island. The review notes that the spinal center is evolving into a more youthful sound. Beautifully exemplifying the new era, is soulful trumpeter, Theo Croker, an adventurous musician, hailing originally from Florida, Leesburg, Croker returned recently to the United States after a seven year residency at Shanghai’s House of Blues. “Theo Croker is one of the most creative trumpeters on the horizon today, and is also one of the most energetic artists I’ve ever encountered.” Those are the words of legendary jazz man, Marcus Belgrade. His latest album, Escape Velocity, is an energetic immersion into, as spoken in the opening track’s verse, “Our divine earthly experience, to fulfill. Raising our vibrations. Reclaiming the peace.” The time has come to transcend, and I’ll ask Theo, to transcend what and when and how?
HEFFNER: It was really magical to see you with the trumpet in Newport. Congratulations on that performance.
CROKER: Thank you Alex.
HEFFNER: You were saying to me, that was something else.
CROKER: That was great. That, that whole festival has an amazing energy.
HEFFNER: It was your first time.
CROKER: That was my first time ever going, ever playing. It was, it was quite a, a rush.
HEFFNER: And I think there was an artist who called in sick, and you did double or triple duty.
CROKER: Yeah. We did double duty, and we knew about it a couple hours before we left to go, so, I mean…
CROKER: I was asked and of course I was like, yeah, yeah, I’ll play twice, [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: The director of the program, I think he recounted, texted you in the middle of the night…
CROKER: Yeah, Danny Melnick, great guy, and, and, and um, he texted me and I was like, I don’t really understand, cause it’s like, four in the morning, but yes, I’m down. And he was like, well, I was like, look I’m down for whatever, just yes. [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: How did you train to have the mental and physical patience for that.
CROKER: I guess I’m still training… I’m constantly training. Um it’s a lot of, it’s a lot of, you just have to stay focused on each step at a time and not, not get too carried away with the end result, especially in an art form like music where there really is no end result. So it’s kind of coming to peace with that and just that everyday is a lesson, is a challenge.
HEFFNER: And in those words of the opening track, what are you transcending?
CROKER: [LAUGHTER] Well, mainly that whole opening track is just a, it’s a, it’s a call, it’s a call to, it’s a call to action for everybody to kind of look inside of themselves and find their best self, and bring that forward so that we can all vibrate together and have a, you know, a more loving, a more peaceful environment to exist in.
HEFFNER: You produced that in 2016.
CROKER: Yes, with the help of the drummer, Kassa Overall.
HEFFNER: But it was quite precocious and prescient, was it not, in the climate we live in today, of disunity, incivility…
CROKER: Yeah, it, it was. And uh,
HEFFNER: Discord, as opposed to peace.
CROKER: Absolutely. And I mean as an artist, I mean I, I don’t, it may not be true for all art forms, but as an artist, I feel if we’re not dealing with what the society is dealing with in our art, then we’re kind of missing a lot of our purpose. We should either be distracting people, so they can just kind of deal with it and be happy, or we should be helping them deal with it and be happy, like, this situation that they’re in. So trying to find a way to inspire people to move forward and come together.
HEFFNER: Instrumentally, you do that with gusto.
CROKER: I, I try, [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: Without the words what is the power of instrumental music, which you seldom hear on the radio today or, XM, Pandora. I really wonder if you were to email the Pandora headquarters and ask, how many folks are listening to musical…
HEFFNER: Instrumental, I’m sure there, there, stars like you and of course the Native American Flute Ensemble, or some variety…
CROKER: Oh, that’s cool, that’s, [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: Kenny G.
HEFFNER: But, you bring, seemingly bring back a vibrant tenacity that is primarily instrumental, and you retain a younger audience. How do you do that?
CROKER: I, I don’t know, that’s, [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: Now, that’s not, that’s not good enough. [LAUGHTER]
CROKER: I mean, you know, I mean, all sound is, vibrations create sounds, all vibrations, and everything vibrates, everything from the cup to our bodies, to our brainwaves. Every, everything’s a vibration, so, you know, all the notes correspond to, correspond to different chakras, different energies, different moods, all the keys relate to different moods, different feelings, and we’re simply just taking that code that, that nature gave us with music, and putting it together in different ways. So I strongly believe that if the intent of the musician is to, to be of great impact to the listener, then that’s, you know, all the musical statements that they make are about it, and real, and true.
HEFFNER: Define great impact.
CROKER: Well just, just to have you, you know, be able to step out of your, like, when I go tot hear a great musician play, I want to be removed from my life as, as I’m dealing with it, I want to be removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, riding the subway, dealing with people, that, you know, like some of the negative energy you have to deal with, or maybe whatever kind of difficulty you’re facing in life, you know, personally or financially or at work, anything like that I, I want that to all be removed for the time that I’m listening, to kind of go into like an alternate universe and just be here vibrating and you feel good, and the blood starts to raise and get warm, and your body starts to vibrate and you know, and your soul opens up, basically, to the music. So to, to me, that’s what I’m looking for, the music.
HEFFNER: Well, if you can open soulfulness, in what seems to be a society infected with soullessness, you’re a saint…
CROKER: Oh, [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: You’re a modern day saint.
CROKER: I’m like, I poses what everybody, what everybody has, and vice versa. I think, uh, everybody’s capable of doing it. I don’t think you have to be a, a musical master. Again, it’s, it’s the intent.
HEFFNER: You studied here in the US, in Oberlin…
HEFFNER: And then you took a sabbatical, if you will, overseas, right? In Asia.
CROKER: I, I would call it an adventure,
HEFFNER: Tell, tell our viewers about that.
CROKER: Um, when I graduated college, I, I had trouble finding work in New York, and something popped up and, an opportunity in China, Shanghai, China, where the club would fly out the whole band and house you for three to six months, and you could play six nights a week, three shows a night. So, to me that’s like, that sounded like the fifties, you know, like 52nd street and the clubs in Harlem, Mintons and stuff, where you used to just be, they would hire bands to play for a long period of time, multiple, multiple months at a time. And that’s the way that a lot of the old, older mentors like Marcus Belgrave and Tootie Heath and Gary Bartz, that’s the way they always told us that they learned how to really play this music. So, those opportunities don’t exist in the states that I’m aware of. So when it came up, I, I jumped at it. I put together a band who was willing to go, because we knew very little about China at that time. It was 2007 so we only know, we knew very little. And we went over there man, and they loved the music. And we just played, and we ended up staying, I mean I made a few trips back and forth the first few years, but eventually I ended up staying there for seven years.
HEFFNER: So, is jazz rally universal?
CROKER: Jazz really is universal and what’s classified under jazz other, other places outside of America is, would surprise most Americans. Like, Stevie Wonder is a jazz musician in China. He’s not a pop musician or an RnB, it’s not, it’s not separated. They pretty much consider most black music that’s not hip-hop, and a lot of hip-hop, jazz. So, it’s really a little more encompassing than, than we see it here. It’s not so separated in other places.
HEFFNER: Probably for the better.
CROKER: Yeah, I mean, I, you know, we…
HEFFNER: Or not.
CROKER: We have our way of doing things here. I don’t know if it’s for the better or worse. It just, it is what it is, and it supports whatever model the industry has, I guess, I but over there, there is no industry. So, when somebody comes to hear you play, they just want to hear you play.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, there is no industry?
CROKER: There’s no recording industry…
CROKER: Or radio industry, other than, you know, government run which is, which is actually, very, very eclectic, the programming, and, yeah, it was very, and you know, but there’s no, you know, you don’t release an album and drop an album and compete on charts or, at least in the, in the non-pop world. It’s just, so the, it’s really performance based. People come to a show all the time. Some people, you could see the same people three or four nights in a row at the, at the club or, or, you know, if you’re there for three months they, you’ll see that same person twenty times. So they’re really about experiencing that live interaction of the improviser and of the music, the, sorry, the musician, together. So that’s really the whole, that’s the nucleus of it all. It’s not a record sale or a music video or, at least in this, in this genre, in the performance space, so it’s very, it’s very interactive, it’s just…
HEFFNER: And how are you acclimating back to America now?
CROKER: It’s cool, it’s coming…
HEFFNER: Coming to America?
CROKER: It’s… Yeah, exactly. Uh, I’ve been back since 2013, end of 2013, and um, it’s cool. I had to start over, you know, I had to learn to eat a different kind of way again, cause it’s a whole different system of eating food, and, you know, now when I’m in the street and people are speaking Chinese I understand it, so it’s, I don’t have that piece anymore, [LAUGHTER] you know, [LAUGHTER] and it’s just different, and a lot of stuff changed while I was gone, just even from when I’ve been back to now, a lot of things have changed.
HEFFNER: Did anything change about jazz?
CROKER: Yes, it, it, it’s changed. I guess the perception of jazz has changed. The jazz, jazz itself doesn’t change. It, different things get highlighted at different points in time. It, we’re all pulling,
HEFFNER: But that’s interesting that from 2009…
HEFFNER: Even earlier…
CROKER: Or ’07,
CROKER: Yeah, yeah.
HEFFNER: Until ’13, something,
HEFFNER: Changed about the perception of jazz. What, what changed?
CROKER: I think it became, jazz began to reach a younger audience again. You know? And not a younger audience that was in the suit and ties and pretending it’s the 40’s, you know, like…
CROKER: You know, that, and that’s…
CROKER: Right? No, I mean that’s a great, that’s a great era of music and everything, but those musicians like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Elders, they were all cutting edge, you know, practically pop stars. Louis Armstrong definitely was a popstar. So, you know, they were never playing an old, an old way. They were never going backwards. They were always looking forward trying to move forward. And I think that reemerged in the, in the, I guess you would call it mid thousands, or late 2000’s. I think a lot of jazz musicians began to come, come into, come into fruition with that, that had been influenced by hip-hop and, and RnB and other, you know, electronic music, other forms of music. So we started to bring that music in, into jazz and, and you know, mix it together. You had Robert Glasper’s Black Radio. That turned a lot of people onto jazz. And he was doing it using people like Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott. So he was kind of mixing, mixing the, the followings together.
So, people started to realize, wow, I like jazz, you know, even though you heard it on Tribe Called Quest. But it still, I think people became a little more aware that, oh, this music’s actually pretty vibrant. It’s not just like, my grandparents’ style or my dad’s style. It’s actually relevant to what’s happening now, and where music itself is right now.
HEFFNER: I’m so glad that you explained that.
CROKER: I tried. [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: I, because I honestly, it gives me pleasure and hope, as an admirer of yours and of this genre, that it’s not just for folks at the Beacon…
HEFFNER: Here in New York or,
HEFFNER: What-, whatever the counterparts are in your cities,
HEFFNER: Across the country. It is, the offerings at Newport this year,
HEFFNER: 2017, suggest an epiphany, a Renaissance…
HEFFNER: A new generation. What did you learn from your fellow artists during the Newport experience?
CROKER: Oh, man, well, it’s just, I think it’s great how inclusive a festival like that can be, while still holding its roots to jazz. So you can go see, I saw Cyrus Chestnut’s trio, who’s a great pianist, but it’s jazz, straight-ahead jazz, played, and then we went across the stage and saw the Philadelphia Experiment with Christian McBride and Questlove and DJ Logic, and the Roots were playing, Sean Jones was playing, a great trumpet player. So it, it was so much of like, it was so much of like what they called it, some of the children of jazz, some, the funk and the grooves and everything, was still being incorporated, which I think is beautiful. And I guess, I don’t think it’s new to do that. Jazz always did that. We had grooves in the 70’s and 60’s, like it’s not, but the fact that we’re not separating it anymore, we’re, we’re swinging and we’re grooving, we’re we’re, we’re not saying, OK, this is the only thing that’s jazz, the, the jazz box is now full.
HEFFNER: To what do you attribute, when you describe that transformation from 2007 to 2013.
HEFFNER: Oh man, well, I really think, I really think it was players like, oh, I can drop names, this is cool, like Marcus Strickland and, and Robert Glasber, and Esperanza Spalding, uh, Christian Scott, I, I think it’s all of those artists coming to, coming of age and, and, and a lot of them are my peers, and the fact that we all grew up listening to all sorts of music, we all grew up listening to, of course, everything from the old school to funk and RnB, and soul music in the 90’s, 90’s RnB, which was beautiful, which is gone now, which is strange, and you know, early hip-hop, like real hip-hop with a, with a message.
And so the fact that we also studied the tradition of jazz and that any tradition can only move forward when you, when you know it, and then when you incorporate other traditions within it. So, it
was the whole mixing of what we’re influenced by, like, why, cause there was whole movement in the 90’s to exclude everything from jazz, and just focus on a certain period or certain periods of jazz, which is not ever what the spirit of the music has been about.
HEFFNER: What about the politics of the music.
CROKER: We touched a little bit of that, [LAUGHTER] just now. [LAUGHTER] It’s, you mean like business, or?
HEFFNER: Well, not the business so much as whether or not the groove, as you…
HEFFNER: Describe it, can have a potent effect on the human psyche.
CROKER: Well, it, we know it does. [LAUGHTER] But…
HEFFNER: It doesn’t seem to be driven to the right groove, right, at the present moment in terms of the civility of our culture. Jazz while it can be funky and groovy…
HEFFNER: Is pretty civilized, and you go to Newport or Saratoga…
HEFFNER: I don’t know about Montreal, I,
HEFFNER: But, Newport, Rhode Island, Saratoga, New York, and I’m sure, there’s Monterey, right?
CROKER: Yeah, that’s a great,
HEFFNER: It is groovy, funky, and civilized.
CROKER: It, it is, it, it can be. I mean jazz is a, it is a thinking music, but all music is thinking music. It’s just, how much are you gonna allow yourself to think?
HEFFNER: All music is thinking music?
CROKER: It’s all there to make you think something. It might not be,
CROKER: It might not be a very high level thought,
CROKER: It could be a very low level thought you’re dealing with. You know, we could be, we could be dealing with, in the club type of behavior, but that’s, that is a form of thinking, and it is a form of social behavior. So I think jazz doesn’t exclude that. It just, you know, presents it in a much more mature way.
HEFFNER: What do you think the influence has been of the Roots and the immersion of jazz on late-night…
HEFFNER: Both NBC and CBS? Has that perhaps, does that also deserve credit for a regeneration of jazz?
CROKER: Absolutely. I mean I, I think having those bands like, I, I assume you mean like John Baptiste?
HEFFNER: Baptiste and,
CROKER: Uh, and the Roots,
HEFFNER: The Roots.
CROKER: The Roots, of course, um, it’s nice to hear the Roots playing, you know, they play stuff like “Actual Proof” by Herbie Hancock. You know they, they’re like really bringing a lot more of the, of the jazz repertoire, exposing it to, to an audience, which I think is beautiful. And I think it, it does show a reemergence of interest in, in jazz, but you have to remember that it’s all, jazz has always been relevant and it’s always existed. It didn’t go away. We, you know, the musicians were just, we just weren’t being seen or being heard. But that never stops it. You can always go to any city in America, practically anywhere in the world and find enthusiasts and people that are studying this art form, and not,
HEFFNER: You said,
CROKER: Never letting it go.
HEFFNER: You said Louis,
CROKER: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, Louis Armstrong,
HEFFNER: Or Louis.
HEFFNER: Now, you are a, you are a trumpeter extraordinaire,
CROKER: [LAUGHTER] I, I’m a trumpet player…
HEFFNER: I asked you before,
HEFFNER: And you sidelined the question, when I said the physical capacity,
HEFFNER: And the training from a young age. I think you were five or six when you started playing the trumpet,
CROKER: Uh, eleven, yeah.
HEFFNER: I would think earlier, to have that facility. When did you first experience the trumpet?
CROKER: Oh well you know my, my grandfather was Doc Cheatham, a legendary trumpet player. So I remember seeing him play as early as six years old. And um, I always loved music and was always, you know, as a child I was quite active, you could say. So I, you could never get me to settle down to focus on one thing. But I knew I loved music and when, you know, one day, you know the, the, the middle school band came to the elementary school and let us play all the instruments and I signed up for the trumpet right away, and that was kind of it, [LAUGHTER] so, once I got one, maybe I was just, you just couldn’t get me to stop playing.
HEFFNER: I related, in your biography to that grandfatherly inspiration.
CROKER: Yeah, [LAUGHTER] totally. Um,
HEFFNER: Was it the DNA?
CROKER: You know,
HEFFNER: What, what led you to gravitate towards the trumpet as opposed to another instrument?
CROKER: You know, my, my spiritual beliefs would say yes, but, um, scientifically I don’t know if the DNA decided that for me or not. I do know that I would be here without ir, for sure. If I didn’t have the grandfather and I didn’t, I didn’t have it in my blood, I would still have picked it up and played it, and did the work to get where I am now, for sure, on the instrument and the music.
HEFFNER: Now for folks watching this presentation, where can they see you perform in the future, Theo?
CROKER: Oh, cool, well, I guess the next time I’m playing in New York City is with, with my group, from Escaped Velocity, and it’s on September 25th at the Blue Note,
HEFFNER: Beyond that,
CROKER: Beyond that?
HEFFNER: How can they, how, how do you as the musician, we had Ottmar Liebert here, and he,
CROKER: Oh, cool.
HEFFNER: He was reminding the listeners that Pandora is not the ideal way to,
HEFFNER: Experience it for,
CROKER: Oh, I mean, OK, a plug,
HEFFNER: The musician,
CROKER: A, a, I mean the best way to,
HEFFNER: Plug away.
CROKER: The best way to support a musician is to buy the physical product which is, now I think is pretty much Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and you, you can stream the music, that’s great, but when you purchase the music you’re, you’re putting a notch on the board for that artist.
HEFFNER: Where do you want to bring the impact of instrumental music where it’s not being felt right now?
CROKER: Well, that’s a good question. I, I really think, I think, with the state that we’re in I this country, artistically, through our current administration, that children are probably going to suffer the most. In, in ten years, you know, young children now are, I don’t know if they’re gonna be hip to what’s going on with instrumental music, and the magic that it, that it brings into their life. So I, I think, if it was my mission to expose or reach more people, I would definitely go after the young, young children.
HEFFNER: Children, you don’t want them to be desensitized.
CROKER: Man, no, I mean music saved my life, honestly I was, I was a very hyperactive child, and my parents would not medicate me, and uh, I, I didn’t have any kind of focus, and I had behavior issues cause I didn’t have focus, and I had nowhere to put all that energy, and when I got into band class, the band director at that time, his name was Doug Yop, he was the man who actually taught everybody, he taught everybody in the class together, like, sixty students how to play the instrument from scratch, together. We all learned in a group. That really, you know the, the inspiration and the support and the, the energy that he put into it really gave me a place to put all of my energy and all of my wildness and all of my creativity. And then as, as time progressed, that became an outlet for me to express myself without having to be crazy, I guess.
So it’s, I think, you know, it teaches you, music teaches you how to work with others, absolutely, it teaches you how to be creative, it activates the creative side of your brain, which you need if you’re gonna be a physicist, a pilot, an engineer, all these, all these great professions, all, I’m sure a lawyer needs it, a doctor, you need creativity to solve every problem. You have to be creative. You can’t just apply a formula, especially to a new problem, or problems in the future. So, and I, it teaches, it teaches, you know, Wynton Marsalis likes to say [LAUGHTER] that it, that it, it’s a, it’s a very clear form of democracy to play music with people, cause you have to, we have to negotiate. It’s like having a conversation. You can’t over-talk each other. We can’t exclude anybody. We have to do it together, or it’s just one person, which is not a great effect. So I think it’s, it’s important. And it gives children something to do, especially in some of these harder hit communities, economically and socially, children, they, they need an outlet. It can’t just be sports. You know, cause sports is very, it’s very good. We need that too. We need physical activity, but sports is very, you know, that’s a very commercial, commercial, you know, moving into that. And you’re in a marching band, there’s not a lot of commercialism in a marching band, or a concert band, or a jazz band in a school. You’re just, you’re there to play the music. So I, I think it’s important.
HEFFNER: Well, one other place I would propose, Silicon Valley…
HEFFNER: Twitter headquarters,
CROKER: Yeah? [LAUGHTER]
HEFFNER: I think you should pay a visit.
HEFFNER: We have, a lot of folks come on this show, talk about the effect of social and new media…
HEFFNER: On society. And when you say you’re concerned about the children,
HEFFNER: And that that’s the audience of jazz listenership that you aspire to fulfill your goal as a, as a pro-social,
HEFFNER: Musician, go see Theo on iTunes or in concert, magical trumpeter,
CROKER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Pleasure being with you today.
CROKER: Nice being with you too. Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook, @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.