Jazz History in Portland, Part 3
For many jazz fans, 30 years ago feels too familiar to be "history"
and yet it is. Thara Memory is a world class trumpet player, a composer
and a degree-seeking candidate in conducting at Marylhurst College.
He not only recalls Portland's earlier music scene, he is a significant
part of the history being made today.
"What I remember when I first came here
coming down Union
Avenue, was that the streets were really clean and that there were quite
a few clubs at that time
there were a lot of marquees with a lot
of great artists on them. I hadn't quite really experienced anything
like that, but
that was '69, right before 1970
December, '69. I came through here with the Joe Tex Band and then we
had a gig at the Upstairs Lounge
so I stayed because I thought
the African American Black community at that time was
beautiful and it was wide open. You know I didn't ever come downtown
until about 1976
before I didn't really even need to because you'd
have work every night
" Memory says. He recalls that this
was in the heyday of rock and roll when there was a community of musicians
here. "I mean, I didn't know you needed to go downtown for anything.
I really didn't."
In his first few years here, Memory put together a band with Greg
Smith and performed a lot of soul tunes. Another band he named the Gangsters
enjoyed playing music in the extended form. This practice may have originated
in Chicago, but Memory and other Portland musicians pressed it into
service as a natural thing. "We used to
I don't know whether
it's so much a tune as the way that I started shaping music was long,
we may take one song and play it for 35 or 40 minutes,
but it goes through all these different movements of it."
Memory cites influences such as Freddy Hubbard and Eddie Harris and
recalls, "In those days, it was relatively easy to get away with
doing that. It was a little different than today because everything
was based on how much soul power it had. Everybody just came into town
were rated on how much soul power and ferocity you had, because that
was a really hard time for music, for black music to survive. Think
about what the popular music was, acid rock
.Portland was a haven
for this other stuff, I mean that side of town was. We had dances up
at the Albina Arts Center..Lester McFarland was playing bass and Johnny
and Jimmy Sanders on keyboard (now with the Linda Hornbuckle Band).
All of those guys I collaborated with about the extended form."
Memory recalls the differences in society between the south and the
Pacific Northwest. "I think Dick Burdell probably was one of the
first white guys in a soul band, and then Tom Grant
that was funny
to me because I came from the south and everything was fairly segregated.
for me to see black people and white people living in the same
I couldn't believe that
that was almost too much
Memory laughs at his recollection. Quoting his own thoughts, he says,
"I don't understand the purpose of this," then continues "But
then I soon found that it was like a totally different place, attitudes,
and the people didn't do things exactly the same way."
Popular clubs at that time included the Upstairs and Downstairs Lounges,
Fred's Place, the El Dorado, Mary's (which eventually became Nicey's),
The Helm and more.
"When I got here I found Freddy Hubbard on one corner and Stanley
Turentine on the other and guys like Bobby Bradford (currently performing
with Wied and Schlichting in the annual Old Cats Concert). Memory joined
a band started by Walter Bridges; players included Warren Bracken, Cleve
Williams and more. Jazz clubs served food and "white people came
on that side of town, they came to hear jazz; there wasn't anything
downtown." Memory's group included much material from artists like
When the eastside clubs started closing down (for different reasons),
those musicians had to seek work in the downtown scene, and were paid
less. Club owners would say, "I can't hire no black band"
and the more motivated players integrated their lineups. Regarding eastside
club closures, Memory shakes his head when he says, "All I know
is there were more drugs and less music; that's all I know, to be honest."
Jazz and soul music have blended, separated and perhaps blended again.
Thara Memory, as is the case with many world-class players, won't categorize
himself as any narrowly defined stylist today. "See, there's something
you have to understand; I do all music, all the time, the same as I
do today. I do all music, all the time. I just do whatever it is at
the moment..I'll never forget this tavern that was downtown
to create a jazz orchestra and we did a James Brown show and then we
did a Duke Ellington Suite From Africa, the whole record; we
took the whole thing up, we did the whole thing in a tavern. And there
were things like Carlton Jackson, he never forgets that, 'I can't believe
we did that in a tavern,' and I go 'yep.' So, there was never much distinction
for me. You know I always say
does the music have any soul power,
that's the distinguishing feature."
Memory currently performs live in special concerts and can be heard
at Jimmy Mak's for a while longer. "I'd rather do clinics and workshops
and then do concerts in the evening; that's what I would rather do.
That's what I'm working toward doing. I have no more desire to play
in a nightclub. It's gone. I think one of the greatest things against
the health of a jazz musician is playing in a nightclub. I've been playing
in nightclubs for 40 years, so I can say that with authority. It is
the working conditions.
I don't know what that dark and dingy thing is about. I don't know
why you gotta find a date while you're coming to listen to my music.
I have no idea what that (expletives deleted) is all about. I don't
know why you gotta - get loaded while you're trying to listen to my
music. I have no idea. It is very unhealthy. I know I'm on my last six
months of it, for sure."
Memory goes on to talk about the various wonderful venues for music
concerts and dances in Portland. He cites the need for a good "publicity
machine" to promote music-oriented performances. His talent is
great enough to support a publicist and a lawyer. He goes on to say,
"You can go to a lot of other cities and starve to death trying
to play music
you won't in Portland, not if you have a head on
your shoulders. There it is
you can't eat while you're playing,
there is no scene. (If) you can't go to the grocery store while you're
playing music, there is no scene." Memory has recently received
a grant from the National Endowment of Arts to remaster his saved recordings,
with addition of some music to temper the material for today's audience.
He anticipates that "Yeah, people are gonna be hearing some of
that music. There's a CD's worth of stuff on there."
When asked about the condition of young people who seek training in
music, Memory says in his signature style, "We've all totally dropped
the ball on that end. The ball is bouncing down the street and about
to get hit by a car. Everybody totally dropped the ball. " He believes
that young players will leave this area in order to perform professionally.
Where does he think they might go? "I have no idea. I'll encourage
them to leave." (His laugh here accents his seriousness.)
When contemplating his own future and the rapidly approaching future
of all musicians here, Memory asserts, "I have enough talent to
support other people in music shows; that's why I'm the one who's gonna
do it, but you can't do that in a nightclub. I just proved that with
the last few shows I did at the club. I just proved that I can put on
a better show and more people will come in and pay for it than the place
can even hold. I said, oh, ok, I'm done. You know I didn't make any
so I said, Oh, ok, this is what I will need to
put together, this kind of orchestra; this is how much I need to charge,
so you need this kind of place, which ain't a nightclub."
Memory currently conducts the Portland Wind Community Orchestra as
part of the Accelerated Music Program, rehearsing on Sunday afternoons.
This group focuses on classical pieces and welcomes musicians of all
ages. Some music reading ability is necessary but motivation and hard
work will be rewarded. The AMP also offers a middle school jazz program
conducted by Ronnye Harrison, which rehearses on Saturdays. This program
is open to virtually all instruments and includes instruction in jazz
styling and improvisation.
Music provides a structure and focus in a child's life that can supercede
negative influences and temptations. It provides a forum for success,
both short and long term. It is no secret that participation in a music
program can help with brain development in children, which can result
not only in better organization of the nervous system, but improved
abilities in higher math functions in the later grades.
Thara Memory has a lot to say about what music does for people in
general and especially children. "I think parents need to go ask
the superintendent how come there's no music for their child in their
school. I think that's the number one thing. Why does my child not have
a good music program at his school, being as how the arts, especially
music, can do all of these things for my kids, why is that?"
(Watch future issues for more Jazz History In Portland.)