Although trumpet master Thara Memory is seldom, if ever, on the bandstand Tuesday nights as a member of the Mel Brown Septet, he is creating a jazz presence that will last for years to come.
His passion for jazz runs as hot as ever, despite severe health setbacks which would have retired a lesser person. With his eye on the future, Memory is ensuring the music's bright future by training young musicians. His magnificent teaching skills perhaps even outweigh his performance abilities. And everyone who has heard him through his 38 years in Portland know Memory can stand up to anyone on the bandstand.
Memory ran into a difficult-to-fathom career blow when, after developing award-winning combos and big bands at Beaverton's Arts, Communication Magnet Academy, his contract was not renewed. He was pained. Some who knew the situation called it a bureaucratic lynching with heavy racial overtones.
Memory had already, together with Portland State University instructor Darrell Grant, trained, groomed and supported Esperanza Spalding, a teenage bassist, singer and composer. She won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. While a student, she went on an international tour accompanying singer Patti Austin. Immediately after her graduation ceremony, she was offered and accepted a faculty position as an instructor in the bass department.
Fortunately, Memory caught on at a Northeast Portland private school, Pacific Crest. He took over a mundane music program and turned it into a national force in high school competitions.
One of his hottest prospects in today's band is 18-year-old Hailey Niswanger — who plays all the reed instruments. Equally adept on alto, tenor, baritone saxophones and clarinet, she will compete in the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz competition in Washington, D.C. on May 16. Five women were selected by taped audition to participate in the competition. There are no age restrictions, so Niswanger will go up against older, more experienced female musicians. The only restriction is that a competitor cannot have had a national recording contract. The winner will get a booking in the Women in Jazz Festival in May 2009.
Another star is Vancouver resident Javier Nero, a handsome, six-foot-plus trombonist who has won a full scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
Tenor saxophonist Jan Christensen has won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, New York University and the New School. Trumpeter Blake Martin plans to use the scholarship he won to attend the Manhattan School of Music. Another youngster, guitarist Nick Hamel was awarded a full tuition grant to attend a college in Norway.
These honors aren't just a happenstance. The students came to Memory with a measure of talent and passion. He taught them using, in some cases, tough love, his own deep feelings for them and the music to mold them into mature young adults ready to bear the torch of jazz.
As a group, they have demonstrated they learned their lessons well. At the North Texas State Jazz Festival a few weeks ago, and after submitting a taped audition, Pacific Crest swept both the big band and combo categories.
They outplayed eight big bands and 10 combos from around the United States who made the first cut.
Proving the Texas win was no fluke, the band went to the Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, Calif. and won the only competition, the big band contest. That victory garnered a cash prize as well as an appearance at the 2008 Monterey Jazz Festival. Niswanger was selected the outstanding soloist from all the musicians performing.
Thara Memory, working quietly in a small Northeast Portland school tucked in a blue collar residential neighborhood, is exercising a huge hand in shaping the future of America's only true native art form … jazz.
Dick Bogle hosts a weekly jazz radio show 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays on KMHD 89.1 FM. He can be reached at email@example.com.