Music | Oregon

Grammy Winner Esperanza Spalding Headlines Benefit Concert For Jazz Education

OPB | Aug. 15, 2013 4:30 p.m. | Updated: Aug. 16, 2013 3:27 p.m.

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Three-time Grammy Award-winner Esperanza Spalding headlines a Sunday concert of homegrown jazz talent to benefit the music program of one of her mentors, Thara Memory.

Proceeds from the performance, entitled “Nothin’ But The Blues,” help support Memory’s American Music Program, which offers about 18 Portland-area middle- and high-school students the chance to study and perform under the tutelage of the well-known jazz educator.

Spalding is the most prominent of the 64-year-old Memory’s former students, a group that also includes Hailey Niswanger, Patrick Lamb and John Nastos.

Sunday’s venue — the 590-seat Gerding Theater at the Armory — is unusually intimate for a show including Spalding. She’s been performing at large outdoor festivals across Europe and the U.S. this summer, and her upcoming dates include the 17,376-seat Hollywood Bowl, 2,804-seat Carnegie Hall and 2,454-seat Kennedy Center.

The concert also features saxophonist Niswanger, soul singers Andy Stokes, LaRhonda Steele and Memory’s daughter Tahirah, and 23-year-old trombonist Javier Nero, who played in the benefit concert’s inaugural performance in 2011.

Memory asked Nero, a graduate student in jazz composition and studio engineering at the University of Miami, to arrange two pieces for the performance and submit one of his original compositions. “My original is called ‘Tesseract,’ which is a four-dimensional cube,” explains Nero. “[The piece] has some different sounds and different chords and progressions I was experimenting with which sounded kind of foreign to me. Tesseract is a physics anomaly, so I thought the two had something in common.”

Nero credits Memory with helping him get serious about his musical talents when he was a sophomore at Vancouver’s Evergreen High School. Under Memory’s tutelage, Nero earned a full scholarship to the famed Juilliard School. “Thara is a very blunt and honest teacher,” Nero says. “He opens you up to the world of possibilities, and you start working a little harder. He gets you to a higher level.”

Memory is a vocal critic of the lack of music education for American youth — especially when it comes to jazz, which he calls “the only classical music America has.” The American Music Program’s goal is to provide students with a first-rate music education, expose them to masters of the genre and give them the opportunity to perform in some of the nation’s most prestigious jazz competitions.

“Every graduate from my program that plays in my band gets a scholarship to go to college. That’s why people need to support this program,” Memory told KMHD Program Director Matt Fleeger. “We want our kids to get trained, to go into competitions, to see the best musicians in the country. … We want them to go places.”

Sunday’s festivities will also include a live auction of two original works by local portrait artist Diane Russell: a print of her oil painting of Memory and a pencil drawing of Memory and Spalding that pays homage to the Grammy they won earlier this year for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists” for the song “City of Roses.”

Concert organizer Patti Niswanger says she hopes the event raises $20,000, which she says will help cover scholarships and travel expenses for the student orchestra.

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