Thara Memory: Oregon Jazz Hero

Thara Memory works with student musicians in his American Music Program.

Thara Memory works with student musicians in his American Music Program.

On Saturday at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, Portland music educator, composer and jazz trumpeter received the latest in a long and growing list of laurels: an honorary doctorate from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, which he picked up along with Led Zep guitar legend Jimmy Page, jazz pianist Geri Allen, and soul singer Valerie Simpson. Last month, the Jazz Journalists Association designated Memory as one of two dozen national jazz heroes. Last year, Memory scored a Grammy award for his work with his protege, Portland-born bassist/singer/composer Esperanza Spalding on her Portland tribute song, “City of Roses.”

In recent years, the Portland Jazz Festival proclaimed Memory its 2011 Jazz Master, and earlier he received the Jazz Society of Oregon’s Musician of the Year award, a Regional Arts and Culture Council artist’s fellowship, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Portland’s World Arts Foundation, and many other honors, including induction into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

In JJA’s awards listing, veteran Portland jazz journalist Lynn Darroch offered a lovely tribute to Memory that’s worth reading in its entirety. Memory, who founded Portland’s American Music Program to teach students about American jazz, also appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Art Beat last year.

In January, I interviewed Memory for Willamette Week before a performance at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s jazz club. Read that story for a quick backgrounder on Memory and why so many musicians and educators admire him so much, as well as for his thoughts on the music business, African American music history, and more. As usual in the world of print journalism, WW didn’t have room for the entire interview, so here are a couple of outtakes.

WW: Do you think Portland is a good place for young black musicians?

TM: Now, if you’re talking about people who don’t know anything about music running around, asking people to make beats for them, and that wear hoodies, that’s completely removed from my work. We’re not talking about the mainstream African American diaspora there.
If you’re talking about musicians who can play music, they’re with me. Under my wing, they’re either heading to [New York’s] Juilliard [School] or to [Boston’s] Berklee [School].

A lot of young black people come to my show and they shake my hand and say ‘what is my history?’
We’re at the mercy of digital rapper jive. If you think Britney Spears and 50 Cent can pull into a studio with a drum machine and make music, you have nothing. Nobody can work or pray or love behind that music.

WW: What about young black musicians like Esperanza and those you teach? Can they change the music industry?

TM: Esperanza came out of Northeast [Portland], out of King school where I have my program right now. She gigged around with everybody, constantly asking advice — ‘How do you do this? How do you do that?’ She’s gonna totally change it. Her colleagues are ready for her now. Look at those Grammies. But the industry isn’t, because she ain’t wearing no hoodie, ain’t making no beats and ain’t twerking her bootie.

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4 Responses.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Fond memories of sitting on the front porch and hearing sweet music drifting on a summer breeze from The Albina Art Center as students of Thara Memory played their hearts out. Thara is a Jazz Master and a treasure of Portland.

  2. Brian Crain says:

    I believe Mr. Memory received his honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music in Boston not Boston University.

    • Thanks, Brian. We’ve updated the post to reflect that he received the award FROM Berklee AT BU, per his website:
      925 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA
      On Saturday, May 10, 2014, Berklee College of Music president Roger H. Brown will present Thara Memory, Jimmy Page, Geri Allen, and Valerie Simpson, with honorary doctor of music degrees at Berklee’s commencement ceremony at the 7,000-seat Agganis Arena at Boston University.
      For More Information:
      NICK BALKIN, Berklee College: 617-747-2247

  3. Thankful Parent says:

    I just want to say thank you for being “THAT” teacher for so many young people. Your love of not only Jazz but of each and every child, has made the world a better place.
    I know my child carries the life lessons with him even more than the Jazz lessons.

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