His talent is innate; he inherited a unique gift from his grandfather, the legendary trumpet player Doc Cheatham. Theo Croker is one young musician who is not afraid of greatness, or the hard work and dedication it takes to get there.
Born and raised in Leesburg, Florida on July 18, 1985, Theo first picked up a trumpet at age eleven after a visit to New York City where he heard his grandfather play at Sweet Basil. At age 92, Doc died the following year, but Theo continued to listen to his recordings. “I would just sit in my room and play my trumpet for hours without knowing what I was doing,” Theo says. “I would slowly teach myself new notes and play along with recordings of my grandfather and other greats. I noticed that I could fit in with what I was hearing harmonically.” It was at a memorial service for his grandfather, when he had his first chance to perform for jazz-savvy audience. “I was only twelve years old, but the way the music touched people and the way it made me feel was enough to set me for life. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
After high school, Theo had his pick of the country’s finest music schools, but the great Donald Byrd, the multi-Grammy® Award winning composer and recording artist, was like a magnet that pulled him to the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio. Jazz legends like Gary Bartz, Robin Eubanks, Billy Hart, Wendell Logan, Marcus Belgrave, and Dan Wall also taught at Oberlin. “I didn’t want to study with teachers, once I knew I could study with actual players, active jazz legends. That made the call for me,” Theo says. After graduating from Oberlin in 2007, Theo began his postgraduate education, hanging out and playing with older musicians like Benny Powell, Jimmy and Tootie Heath, Billy Hart, and Marcus Belgrave. “They taught me how to live my life. Things not to do that they did, and things to do that they didn’t,” he explains.
Theo received the Presser Music Foundation Award in the spring of 2006. He used the grant money to record his first album, The Fundamentals, in New York City with The Theo Croker Sextet. The band’s members were all in their early twenties and each as impressive as the next; they define the ambitious and highly skilled lions of their generation.
The response has been incredible. Donald Byrd praises Theo’s musicianship: “There are good, great and nice musical players, but then there are phenomenal instrumentalists, such as Theo. I would place Theo in a class of musicians who will redirect the flow, change and alter the current of today’s New Jazz. Theo has the ability and the intelligence to challenge the direction of Nu Music. Theo is one of today’s titans. He is a Sankofa.” Marcus Belgrave says, “Theo Croker is one of the most promising and creative trumpeters on the horizon today and is also one of the most energetic artists I have ever encountered.”
“He has the tools, the intelligence, the ability and the talents,” praises Wynton Marsalis. “The future looks bright for Croker.”
So many of the greats have influenced him: Louis Armstrong, Doc Cheatham, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Marcus Belgrave, as well as contemporaries like Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Terrence Blanchard. Composers like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, and too many others to name. Other strong influences come from hip hop & R&B: Stevie Wonder, Digable Planets, Outkast, Quincy Jones, Pharrell, and many, many others. Theo recently returned to the United States after a seven-year stay in Shanghai, China. The experience pushed him to broaden his idea of jazz to encompass other genres (including salsa, fusion/rock, blues, etc.), as all Shanghai musicians have to. During his time there, Theo held a five-month residency at Shanghai’s “House of Blues and Jazz,” and was soon after hired as the house band for Asia Uncut Star Network–a late night television show modeled on the Tonight Show–where Theo served as the bandleader and in-house composer until mid-2010.
It was in Shanghai where Theo met and performed for the first time with vocal icon Dee Dee Bridgewater, who performs on and produced his upcoming album, AfroPhysicist. Available May 20 on DDB Records via Sony Music Masterwork’s OKeh imprint, the album serves as the first release on Bridgewater’s label by anyone other than herself since its inception in 1996.