As it should be, the legacy of one of Oregon’s great teachers might be best expressed by a former student.
“That relationship of mentor and mentee, that is so hard to find. [Thara Memory] is the human institution of that education,” said Portland jazz musician Esperanza Spalding, who shared a Grammy Award with Memory in 2013.
“It literally can put a center in the life of a young person,” she said.
Memory co-founded and directs the American Music Program’s Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra. It’s a magnet school program training students from 7th to 12th grade. And it’s as elite of a youth jazz orchestra as it gets.
One measurement is the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition.
It’s one of the most competitive events in the country, where 15 schools compete in New York City. Out of the program’s 10 years of existence, it has been accepted into the national competition six years. They won it in 2015.
In all the years the competition has been open to West Coast schools, only a single other Oregon program has been accepted. That band was also led by Memory.
OPB producer John Rosman sat down with Thara Memory at the Musicians’ Union Local 99 in Portland for a wide-ranging — and at times feisty — conversation on education, race and jazz. The conversation is part of the OPB’s Greetings From the Northwest series. It has been edited for clarity.
THARA MEMORY: Why do you think a black jazz musician is working with gobs of white kids?
JOHN ROSMAN: Why?
MEMORY: Because I am changing the world. I’m not just putting notes inside a horn. I’m changing the brain pattern of how it’s thought of.
ROSMAN: What does that have to do with diversity or race?
MEMORY: (Laughs) Oh man. First of all, that’s obvious, but I’ll take a minute and break it down for you. If I, as a black man, who came up in a segregated world and had few chances and still overcame them, teach white kids and they ask me daily and weekly, “Mr. Memory, when are we going to get some black kids in the band? When are we going to get some Latino kids? When’s that going to happen?” When YOU become a teacher in full-force and demand it — when the white man demands it, then it will happen.
ROSMAN: That’s such a…
MEMORY: Loaded statement?
ROSMAN: Yeah a little bit. In a way that statement negates all the amazing work you’ve done.
MEMORY: Good. That’s what it’s supposed to do. I am supposed to become obsolete, i.e. (Portland jazz artist) Esperanza Spalding. She just won’t let me.
ROSMAN: Do you think that’s a sign of a true educator, making yourself obsolete?
MEMORY: Yes. All my teachers were that way. My trumpet teacher, my composition teachers, my conducting teacher. They were all like that. Others should be superior to you. Treat them that way.
ROSMAN: How can you as an educator take that message and inspire your students with that idea?
MEMORY: One of the exercises we do is, early on when a kid comes to me, he’s going to have to define humility.
ROSMAN: What are kids finding when they come to this band?
MEMORY: The truth about themselves, the truth about the world and how it operates, the truth about human relations and the truth about learning.
I ask my students, “Are you learning it so you can go downtown and get on the stage and have people clap for you? Is this why you’re learning it?” Now when they tell me, “No, that’s not why I’m learning it,” I say, “You’re lying.” Then the whole band says “You’re lying. Tell us the truth.”
“OK, I want people to love what I play.”
“OK, band tell him what he sounds like.”
You see what I mean? The truth. So, this cat then gets to work.
ROSMAN: I love that dynamic you create within the band, where you’re fostering a community, where if a student works hard, the whole band says, “Wow.” That creates a wonderful incentive system.
MEMORY: It’s the biggest incentive that a young kid can have. Me saying you sound good means nothing. But the room, the band, I ask them: “What you think about that, band?” Then they yell: “You suck!”
The next rehearsal, that person has their stuff together. No person is going to take that and go away saying, “I don’t give a damn what they say about me, I ain’t going to do anymore work.” [Laughs] If that’s the case, you’re in the wrong band. You’re in the wrong profession. You’re in the wrong school. You’re in the wrong everything.
ROSMAN: What is the line?
MEMORY: There is no line.
ROSMAN: Of how hard you push the kids?
MEMORY: There’s no line. Every kid is different. Every band is different. There are ways of mentoring and there are ways of mentoring. See, I’m not saying my way of mentoring is the only way. It’s just the damn good way. You can’t keep it unless you give it away.
You Can’t Keep It Unless You Give It Away
Thara Memory Educates the Next Generation of Jazz Musicians
ROSMAN: I’ve read that a lot in your interviews. Is that the most important lesson you impart on your kids? “You can’t keep it unless you give it away?”
MEMORY: Yes, that is why I am teaching them. That’s why a Southern man who came up in segregation is teaching them now.
See, Northern white people don’t understand that. They have no consciousness of that. They don’t really know what the heck I’m talking about. But I know, the few people who are out there like me, if we don’t change this scenario with these kids, this planet is going to be screwed.
But see, one kid can go out there and affect thousands, tens of thousands of people and thinkers. Think about all the people who go to concerts and then run home and read the back of the album and then read their book. Woah. Now, that’s big and powerful.
You see what I’m saying? Every four years I get 20 some kids and they keep moving through. Ask Esperanza what her first lesson was like. She goes, “I only know you hollered at me a lot, but I kept and working and working.” She was like 9 or 10. It was over there in Northeast (Portland).
You just don’t understand, do you?
Low economic resource community — tax base low, education low, low, low — full of geniuses. Guys like me gotta pull them out of there. I’m training kids to be able to do this, to go into these urban centers and not be afraid to have a Latino band. Not be afraid to have a Latino orchestra. Not be afraid to have an African American band. Not be afraid to go to a festival with an all African American band. There’s a reason why this hasn’t happened: The planet’s messed up.
ROSMAN: When Think Out Loud interviewed you and your band, a pianist who had been in the band for five years answered what he thought that mantra, “You can’t keep it unless you give it away,” meant. He said that it made him be the first to teach the new kids in the band. It ultimately made him want to be a teacher. Did he get it?
MEMORY: It’s nothing more than that. Every lesson that he learned, about how when he was in 9th grade and he started to slack off and I told him “I’m going to be on you like white on rice, boy. Everyday until you come up.” Then he said later, “I’m glad you didn’t give up on me.” That’s the thing. So, he said, I want to teach. That’s beautiful. That is just so beautiful.
Now, he really needs to learn all this knowledge in the world so that he can be a proficient teacher.
Memory’s Mentor, William Butler Fielder
ROSMAN: Is it hard putting so much of yourself in these kids?
MEMORY: I teach the way I was taught. If my teachers put 310 percent of themselves into me, why would I do less if I call myself a teacher? My trumpet teacher, William Butler Fielder, was like a father to me.
ROSMAN: When did you start working with him?
MEMORY: In 1966, and he stayed with me up until he died eight or nine years ago. He was always “Prof.”
ROSMAN: What would he teach you?
MEMORY: So they start amputating on my hand. [Thara Memory has diabetes. He’s lost two fingers on his playing hand and his ring finger on his other hand] If you Youtube Mel Brown at Blue Lake you’ll see how fast I could play. You’ll see the level of dexterity. It couldn’t be matched. They took that.
So, I needed to start learning on my other hand. This is over 15 years. I started playing with this hand. As soon as I got where I was comfortable playing with my left hand on a right hand trumpet. They wanted to take my ring finger.
Through all of this, Prof would have me on the phone. He told me, “You can’t stop playing.” He says, “OK, let me hear you play Clark #7.” He would then say, “OK, I can hear that finger. You know that finger is not missing. Develop the muscle in the other finger [the pinky]. Just like you’d play the [ring finger].”
He taught me again as a 50-year-old man, as if I were a 15-year-old boy. That’s a teacher. That’s a master.
ROSMAN: How much of what you teach your kids has to do with jazz?
MEMORY: Two percent.
The tactile stuff, the ear, the brain, the hand can become a sort of self-deprecating weapon if we’re not careful. I train in such a way that my kids read biographies every year, Miles Davis, e.g. They don’t have wonder about the societal things. They know what the problem is. They know what the solution is.
You have to understand that in 1960, Miles Davis did not know what the solution was. He only knew that he was one of the greatest musical minds ever — even beyond Beethoven — and he was treated as shit as a man.
As our conversation continued, Memory spoke about his experience as an educator in Portland.
MEMORY: In order to change the world, people must see each others as equals. Not lesser, but equals. If that’s possible, then you would want to teach the rich kid as well as the poor kid. That’s the way I see it.
But you’re going to have do a lot more work to get to the poor kid to teach them. Society has a lot of manholes before you can get to them.
Let’s say you’re decent at what you do and you start making money. Do you want to go to Northeast Portland and deal with the silly politics of gentrification trying to teach little kids who don’t want to be taught because they don’t know anything about it?
For decades, their community has been bombed out of culture. The only culture they know: YG, the filthiest rapper on the planet. My boys when I met them were going around quoting YG. I had to change that. Louis Armstrong not YG. Miles Davis not YG.
I always tell this story: When I was about 19 years old my teacher told me, “If you were a white boy with this talent, they would train you for the New York Philharmonic.”
ROSMAN: Do you think anything has changed?
MEMORY: [Laughs] See, now you’re pissing me off. You’re really pissing me off. OPB is dancing around it. NPR is dancing around it. Public broadcasting is dancing around the issue. They are scared of it.
ROSMAN: It is a difficult a conversation, an uncomfortable conversation…
MEMORY: Why should I care if you’re uncomfortable?
ROSMAN: I’m not saying you should care if I’m uncomfortable…
MEMORY: I’ve been uncomfortable all my life and I’m 67 years old. Name me one day in life as an African American that I haven’t been uncomfortable.
Every day when I leave my house and walk down the street — and I’m an educator, a scholar — when the police pass by me, I look. If they stop their car by me, I take a really big deep breath: “Remember what you’re daddy say, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’’’
I watched my father and the police would stop and accost us in the South. You know what he would say? “Yes sir, boss. No sir, boss. I’m on my way to work, boss.”
And I would go like, “Daddy, you don’t talk like that! What’s wrong with you?”
And he’d say [under his breath], “Shut up.”
So in every other aspect of my life, I will get up in the man’s face, but the police — I go limp. I won’t try to say I got rights. I don’t have any rights.
But my students, I can tell you for a fact, if they saw an encounter like that, will come forward and say, “You wrong. That’s my teacher.” And will step up for the change. They will make the change. It will happen. So maybe by the time I’m 75, I can let go of that.