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American music: Thara Memory and the next generation

by: PHOTO: JIM CLARK/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Students in the American Music Program, led by Thara Memory, perform at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival in Gresham in August.

In an era of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, who keeps America’s great music traditions alive? Who gets young musicians fired up about the rich creations of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis? People like Thara Memory do.

The Portland trumpet player, composer, recording artist and educator has his own long list of accomplishments. He has won a Grammy Award and a place in the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, played trumpet with Dizzy Gillespie and James Brown, recorded his own music, composed an operetta and is writing a ballet, among other things.

And for many young musicians who are serious about building successful careers of their own, Memory is someone who will help them get there, if they really work at it. Memory is founder and director of the nonprofit American Music Program, an intense study of this country’s “art music” — jazz. The program, also known as AMP Jazz, draws young musicians, seventh through 12th grades, from schools all over the Portland area.

“My kids, by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’re polished musicians,” says Memory, 65, who started the program in 2005.

The program’s Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra wins awards at competitions all over the country — earlier this year it brought home a second-place prize from the Next-Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, Calif., and performed at the Essentially Ellington festival in New York City.

Many of Memory’s students move on to performing arts colleges and successful careers in music. Among the alumni: Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding. Memory won his own Grammy this year for his arrangement of Spalding’s “City of Roses,” from her album “Radio Music Society.”

Another Memory protege who has made a name for herself: Hailey Niswanger, a 23-year-old West Linn High School graduate and alto saxophonist who graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Niswanger, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has toured with Spalding and is working on her third album, which she will record with Memory in December. She’s writing the music; Memory will arrange it and play the trumpet.

“When I joined Thara’s band is when I decided what music is all about,” Niswanger says of her former teacher.

Memory has a tough-love, get-down-to-business style of teaching, she says — definitely not for the thin-skinned. “The thing is, he’s just super real — he’s really honest,” she adds. “Lots of people try to soften it up, but he was really honest and blunt with me.”

Niswanger still enjoys watching him teach. “It’s really cool to see he’s still doing his thing and inspiring students,” she says. “He treats me more like a colleague now, but I say, ‘You’re always going to be my teacher.’”

Musical beginnings

Memory had a solid foundation in music from a young age. Born in Tampa, Fla., he grew up in Eatonville, a small Florida town “where there was music everywhere,” he says. “We had wonderful concert and jazz bands; it’s how you got interested in going to school.”

He started playing the trumpet in elementary school and from fifth grade on had great music teachers who inspired him, he says. He attended Alabama State University, where his last teacher was well-known trumpet instructor William Butler Fielder.

Memory arrived in Portland while performing with rhythm and blues legend Joe Tex, started teaching at Portland State University in 1971, also starting PSU’s first jazz band.

He’s been leading community bands in one form or another since 1983, starting with a marching band at King Elementary School that lasted about five years. The next one was a concert band he started at Portland Community College.

“Jazz is not my main music,” he says. “My main music is classical band music. That’s what I was raised in. It’s not a music in Oregon, so I went to jazz, where it was easier to get national recognition.”

Memory doesn’t think much of today’s popular music. “Most of American pop culture is trash,” he says. There is some good music, he adds — he likes Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars, and as for Beyonce, fans who look beyond the superstar’s booty shaking will notice she has a top-notch band. “I’ve gotten to know some of the people in that band, and they are really good jazz musicians; they’re not kidding around,” Memory says.

“You know that young people don’t have to write trash; someone’s telling them to write trash. Adults are dumbing down the audience. It’s just a formula to make the most money.

“People have to train, they have to be talented, they have to work hard, they have to be all of those things that go into it.”

‘I make music’

As a trumpet player, Memory has performed with many other jazz and blues stars — James Brown, Natalie Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Harris, Arturo Sandoval — and played locally with Mel Brown and the late Leroy Vinnegar as well as leading his own Thara Memory Superband.

Memory’s works as a composer include the operetta “Sherman,” and he recently finished collaborating with jazz pianist and arranger David Goldblatt on a piece of music that will be part of a ballet he is writing. “I found out I love collaborating with people,” Memory says. “If you’re not selfish, you get better music.”

In the next five years he plans to turn the American Music Program into a regional symphonic band. His personal goal “is to make great music in the community,” he says.

“If you’ve got the money, you can go to great concerts, but ... what if those concerts didn’t come to your community for a whole year, or what if they did? What is going on in your community? And that’s where I come in. I make music.”

Learn more

The American Music Program: www.ampjazz.org

Thara Memory: www.tharamemory.com