Theo Croker Recalls a Trumpet Mentor, Marcus Belgrave, Before a Winter Jazzfest Salute

Jan 10, 2020

Theo Croker vividly remembers his first lesson with Detroit’s brass hero Marcus Belgrave.

It was an encounter that rattled Croker to his core — leaving him in tears and forcing him to come to grips with his shortcomings and aspirations. Though he was already studying trumpet at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and a grandson of the New Orleans trumpet great Doc Cheatham, that first lesson called everything into question.

“He wanted to make sure I was in a place where I was really hungry,” Croker says appreciatively, “‘cause cats like Marcus, they carry such a great part of the tradition, and I think it's appropriate that those types of people — Gary Bartz and Marcus Belgrave and Donald Byrd — pick and choose who they share the knowledge with.”

Marcus Belgrave
Credit Kresge Foundation

Now that Croker is established as a force in music, as evidenced by his radiant, Grammy-nominated album Star People Nation, he has a different perspective on Belgrave’s tough instruction. He’s among the former students and protégés — like saxophonist JD Allen and drummers Karriem Riggins and Ali Jackson, Jr. — who’ll pay homage to the late trumpet master on Sunday at (Le) Poisson Rouge, in a concert organized by Belgrave’s widow, the vocalist Joan Belgrave.

This sprawling show, From Detroit to the World, is split in two parts, and will showcase Belgrave’s impressive range as an artist. Along with those protégés, it will convene some of his distinguished peers, including bassist Ron Carter, singer Sheila Jordan, pianist and singer Johnny O’Neal, and drummer Louis Hayes.

Joan Belgrave says that her late husband “was able to navigate between so many musical worlds. I watched him in situations with jazz, classical, funk, even techno (with Carl Craig, who is also on the show).  He created a musical family full of people who would do anything for him.”

Along with a remembrance of Belgrave, this episode of The Checkout joins Croker on a guided tour through Star People Nation, which features notable cameos by drummers Eric Harland and Kassa Overall, along with vocalists and Chronixx.

I spoke with Croker during my visit to TSF Jazz in Paris, during its annual Jazz Sur Seine Festival, which happens to be modeled after Winter JazzFest. He’ll bring Star People Nation to the Mercury Lounge on the Winter JazzFest Marathon on Saturday, starting at 11:45 p.m.

Watch his band perform “The Messenger,” a track from the album, at WBGO.

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