What makes the Portland jazz scene so special? Many would say that through his efforts to encourage and educate a new generation of Oregon jazz musicians, jazz trumpeter and educator Thara Memory has much to do with it.
Memory established the Portland-based American Music Program (AMP), dedicated to educating 7th to 12th graders in American jazz music, in 2005. Since then, the program has prepared many young musicians to go on to performing arts colleges and careers, including internationally known musicians Esperanza Spalding and Hailey Niswanger.
Memory’s method of educating students is unique. He isn’t afraid to give it to his students straight and has high expectations. He wants his students to know “… they can do something, and they can master it.” To be such a mentor, he says, is his calling.
“My job in life is just to teach people the way I was taught, to give them what I was given. You can’t keep it unless you give it away,” Memory says.
One of his protégés, American Music Program alumna and Grammy Award-winner Esperanza Spalding, credits Memory with giving her the drive and guidance to succeed as a young musician.
“That relationship of mentor and mentee … is so hard to find,” says Spalding. “We think of education and tend to think of an institution. And Thara is the human institution of that education … He’s all about pushing it forward — ‘it’ being ourselves, ‘it’ being knowledge of the music and knowledge of the execution of the music.”
Spalding has been making waves in both the national and international jazz scene. This year, her new album Radio Music Society won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. And Memory and Spalding both took home Grammys for their collaborative song “City of Roses.”
It is this mentorship, Spalding explains, that comes through in the American Music Program.
Spalding’s success points to one of the key strengths of Memory’s American Music Program: educating and empowering young women to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated music scene.
“There’s a couple of things that I know about young women because I am a minority myself,” says Memory. “They need to know that they can be accomplished and that they can blow any man out of their seat, and they need to know that early.”
His brutally honest teaching style shows girls what they are made of.
“Yeah, sometimes girls cry in my band, but you know what? I tell them, ‘You can either sit here and cry or you can become somebody.’ And it’s just that awesome — and when they know they can become somebody, whoa, look out!”
“It’s so valuable what that program does,” says Spalding, reflecting on her time in Memory’s American Music Program. “It’s centering, it’s grounding. And the human qualities that this music demands are so crucial — just growing up to be a good, responsible, capable adult, in whatever it is that you choose to do.”
Memory summarizes his role even more simply.
“I teach people to become self-sufficient musicians. That’s it.”
Catch Esperanza Spalding headlining the Portland Jazz Festival with her trio ACS on February 24 at 7 p.m.