The jazz musician and educator Thara Memory died Saturday night after an extended illness. He was 68.
His collaborations with hundreds of high-caliber students sometimes bore spectacular fruit. He opened doors for kids at all economic levels. But he never promised to be a gentle teacher.
“There are ways of mentoring, and there are ways of mentoring,” he told OPB in 2015. “I’m not saying my way is the only way. It’s just a damn good way.”
And it really was.
Memory’s American Music Program was a contender in student jazz contests all over the United States. Its latest honor was the top prize at the prestigious Essentially Ellington competition in New York City.
Greg McKelvey was Memory’s best friend and a longtime partner in the classroom. They worked together in settings from Portland’s Wilsonville High to Battle Ground, Washington.
“He grew up poor,” McKelvey remembers. “He talked to me about being hungry sometimes, and when he’d play his instrument, it would fill him up. Personally, I think his past is something that I don’t think he wanted to dwell on.”
McKelvey says they met working at Jackson High School in the ‘80s. Memory was so magnetic and passionate at the podium, McKelvey remembers. “I realize that what I wanted to be as a band director was what he was teaching. People were really moved by it,” McKelvey says.
Born and raised in Central Florida, Thara John Memory came to Portland in 1970 as a young touring musician. He established himself in short order with fiery solos. He played hard bop with Mel Brown, spent a couple of years in Leroy Vinegar’s quintet and did events with his friend, the Ghanaian musician Obo Addy.
But by the ‘80s he was also teaching, establishing a brand as the kind of educator who cared enough to tell hard truths.
AMP and the program Memory established at King Elementary were known for high standards. Memory’s time was mostly spent with the high schoolers in recent years. AMP is an elite group, recruited from Lake Oswego and Southwest Washington and other affluent, mostly white parts of town.
If it was hard for him to spend his days surrounded by children of privilege, Memory chose to see it as a way of taking jazz and black culture to people who otherwise feel themselves unaffected. He explained it to OPB in 2015 as a kind of social justice mission. “How come you think I’m working with white kids?” he asked. “Why do you think a black jazz musician is working with gobs of white kids?… Because I am changing the world. I’m not just putting notes inside a horn.”
There were things, Memory added, that black people will never be able to do for white America — progress that could only come when white people want and demand it.
One of his students, Ainsle Cromar, now attends Clark College. She says he was a total character — as she put it, “a bundle of everything” — but very heartfelt in his approach. And that was especially true of time he spent with female students.
“He always pushed the women harder, in a way,” she says. “He’d always call us up after and make sure we knew we had the potential to be better. He’d ask us and demand we learn a Fred Wesley solo, and we’d transcribe one and bring it back next week and if we didn’t play it well we’d have to go learn more.”
Several of his students are now professional musicians, and his most famous pupil, Esperanza Spalding, set the jazz world on fire with five inventive records. She stayed in touch with Memory. A song they arranged together for her 2012 album, Radio Music Society won a Grammy. It’s called “City of Roses.”
Memory clearly put thought into the place young women held in his bands.
Masters of Jazz: The Next Generation
“The women who come to my program love it,” he said in 2015, “because no one tells them the truth. In our culture they are artifacts.” He said he’d seen young women invited to visually prominent places on academic bandstands but denied solos and challenging repertoire.
“Even at seventh grade they detest it,” he said. “So when they come, and they want to be in the band, I’m saying, ‘You suck!’ and they start smiling. I go, ‘You want to be in the band, don’t you?’ (They say) ‘Yeah’. They’re being treated as an equal.”
Memory made no secret of his numerous past brushes with the law and years of struggle with drug addiction. By the end of his life, he’d lost a leg, half of his remaining foot and several fingers to complications from diabetes. He had kidney problems that required surgery as recently as this year. He frequently was on oxygen and often used a wheelchair.
So the jazz world was aghast when, in February, four current and former female students came forward saying he’d touched them inappropriately, in some cases on the mouth, in others, on their breasts. The charges were misdemeanors — that’s on the less serious end of the criminal spectrum, but serious enough.
Greg McKelvey says it’s impossible to reconcile the charges with the unfailingly generous man he knew.
“I would never tell those women — I would never, for example, call them liars and say you didn’t believe what you said. At the same time, I’ve known Thara over 35 years. I’ve seen him at his worst. I have never, ever seen him be inappropriate with a female student,” he says. Memory died before the case could go to trial. The public may never know more than the sparsely-worded description in the eleven-count indictment.
But some, like Cromar, saw the situation as indicative of a complex character.
“I don’t doubt any of the testimonies the girls gave. I think he should [have been] held accountable, but I don’t think it should take away from all the impactful things he’s left in Portland, the jazz students he’s mentored and taken care of and made sure they had a home in the world of music,” Cromar says.
Because of the charges, Thara Memory was not allowed to see his younger students in the last few months of his life. Older ones did visit him at the home he and his wife shared. Friends said he was listening to music up until the very end.
Thara Memory was survived by his wife and four children. No formal memorial is planned, but his friends are organizing a celebration of his life later this summer.