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December 1, 2010

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Cool character talking all that jazz

WITH regular performances at various venues across the city, Theo Croker is a prominent name on the Shanghai jazz scene. Nie Xin chats with the young US trumpeter and composer who - along with his trusty sextet - is on a mission to introduce his signature sounds to local audience.

Theo Croker believes in the real deal. The ubiquitous US trumpeter and composer's pursuit of music is based on individuality, personality and integrity, where an artist transcends tradition and creates his own voice.

Croker started his performance life in Shanghai when he was invited to play by Shanghai's House of Blues and Jazz in 2007.

Besides the bar and the JZ Club on Fuxing Road, he now also performs with his sextet at the Jazz Bar in Fairmont Peace Hotel (Tuesdays-Saturdays, 9:30pm-12:30am), bringing new jazz to this historical hotel with over 100 years of history.

"Reviving the music of the 1920s, the Jazz Bar is now home to this young star," says Iris Zhao, marketing communications manager of Fairmont Peace Hotel. "He is acclaimed as the future of new jazz, influenced by a variety of music, and he has put jazz in Shanghai back on the map."

But surprisingly, Croker says he doesn't like being interviewed, either by print media or TV.

"You know artists are always sensitive," he says, laughing like a child.

Croker made the decision to come to Shanghai three years ago when he received an invitation from the House of Blues and Jazz, a famous live music venue in Shanghai. He accepted it and formed his band.

This "sensitive" young artist loves this city, especially the live bars.

"Shanghai is a wonderful city, young and growing fast, just like me," he says.

He is quick to add that he is satisfied with the foods here, with "many options."

"Chinese food is great and I can also find perfect Japanese cuisine here which is my favorite," he says.

While Croker is amazed by Shanghai's glitz and glamour, there are still strange sights that have also confused him at times, such as people taking showers in the street, or when he experienced bad service at restaurants.

"Well, there are some things perfect here, but also some are disappointing," Croker says. Maybe this is real life.

Born in 1985, Croker was raised in Leesburg, Florida, and it's hard to ignore the musical background of his family. Croker's grandfather Doc Cheatham was Louis Armstrong's trumpet player.

However, when asked if he was influenced by his big-name grandfather, Croker says he started to play music very young and was influenced by the amazing music itself.

When Croker started learning the instrument at school, he realized that in jazz ensembles or classes, the point was not to play the written notes, but to "find your own sound in the instrument."

Croker is proud of his music, and he regards himself as a true artist.

"I'm an artist," he confirms. Not an entertainer, nor a musician.

He defines an artist as "original, creative, caring about the arts and, of course, hardworking" - like himself. He spends at least seven hours a day on practice, rehearsal and composition.

Croker is expressing and exerting himself in his music.

"Artists have to play their own music, or play others' music in their own way, in a way that's clearly them, not anyone else. If I am playing a Stevie Wonder song, I'm playing it my way. It's not a Stevie Wonder song anymore. It will be my song," he emphasizes.

Croker is the kind of person that can stand up and play and make people clap. Or he can stand up and play and make people think. He knows how to do both, and he prefers to make people think.

"The point of playing music is to get people forget about their life for a moment and enjoy what they are hearing is," he says.

Croker's music is described by himself to be "eccentric, effervescent, loud, exciting, energetic, conceptual, thoughtful, selfish, angry, joyful, happy and sad" - the whole range of human emotions.

All sorts of emotion is conveyed to the audience in his music - love, anger, frustration, peace of mind, happiness and joy.

He says that Chinese people don't quite know jazz.

"Jazz, especially new jazz, is a new music style to local Chinese. That's why I'm here - I'm here to enlighten them," he says.

In March this year, he held a jazz concert, "Path of Transcendence," at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center with his sextet - Jonathan Parker (alto saxophone), Andres Boiarsky (tenor saxophone), Nicholas Bouloukos (piano), Curtis Ostle (bass) and Charles Foldesh (drums).

This show provided Croker a chance to present his new suite of music at the time - "Path of Transcendence" - free of interruption and inhibition.

"The audience enjoyed the concert and they loved my music," he says, proudly.

The inspiration of this original suite came from the city of Shanghai itself.

It is Croker's experience from doing whatever he wants to do and working with different bands - salsa bands, blues bands, rock fusion jazz big bands and Chinese bands.

"The opportunities I have had of playing music in Shanghai and learning about myself being a musician in Shanghai explore all the facets of life," says Croker.

"Shanghai is an open city for musicians to do whatever we want, and to make a living by doing whatever we want. What we play here is Shanghai sound," he adds. "My music develops here, transcends here. So what 'Path of Transcendence' means to me, it means Shanghai."

There are a couple of stories within the suite. Most are Croker's own experiences around the world while others were written for some of the people in the band.

Croker is currently busy preparing for his world tour.

In 2011, he will go back to the United States and play shows in countries such as Singapore and Japan.

"If not, they will almost forget me," he says, laughing.

Theo Croker

Nationality: American

Profession: Trumpeter and composer

Age: 25


Self-description: Hardworking and perfect on music.

Favorite place: House of Blues and Jazz.

Strangest sight: People taking a shower in the street.

Motto for life: Play music.

Worst experience: Terrible service at the airport and restaurants.

How to improve Shanghai: Move away from trying to get that thing out of your throat and leaving it on the street. (spitting)

Advice to newcomers: Enjoy your life here and have fun.


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