The Portland Playlist: Thara Memory

Vortex Music Magazine

Thara Memory shares the songs that inspire his music—plus a couple of tracks that he just can’t live without. Listen to his playlist and download a song of his for yours! Photos by Diane Russell

Thara Memory: Photos by Diane RussellThara Memory: Photos by Diane Russell

"Generally, I try to stay ahead of the curve, which is why sometimes people come to me for information... only sometimes can I give them something."

The Portland Playlist has had the opportunity to interview a diverse lineup of local musicians, and in the fourth issue of Vortex Music Magazine, we add yet another longtime player with an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft, culture and creation of music that stems from decades of experience. 

Thara Memory’s involvement and influence is vast, and these days, he spends much of his time teaching the next generation to follow in the footsteps of those who have come before, those who have perfected and advanced America's indigenous art form: jazz. Paying homage to his forefathers and mothers as well as inspirational contemporaries, he also regularly remembers those who have passed.

"There are some favorite musicians of mine who have passed away," Memory says, especially local players and singers. Sonny King, Michael York, Janice Scroggins and Linda Hornbuckle are among the names that Memory lists, individuals that he worked with directly, and frequently.

"I'm afraid these people can't be replaced,” Memory says somberly. “There's not no new kids coming up that's gonna replace them. It's not gonna happen."

Not finishing on that note though, he then tells stories of the educational efforts he’s making with fifth graders in an accelerated music program at NE Portland's King School or collegiate pupils at Portland State University and other local institutions.

"You build new people—that's what I do. You build new people,” he repeats. “And you make sure that the new people get the message, the real message." A message he’s taken around the country and world with students of his American Music Program, a youth jazz orchestra that recruits students from across the Portland metro area and has won numerous national competitions. (Alumni include trombonist Javier Nero and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger—listen to her Portland Playlist.)


Jazz, soul, R&B and more


Trumpeter, bandleader, teacher, opera collaborator, classical conductor and composer, Memory has spent more than half a century honing his chops. On paper, he’s an Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee, won a Grammy in 2013 with his mentee Esperanza Spalding, and has been recognized as Musician of the Year by the Jazz Society of Oregon, as well as shared stages with many local and international jazz greats (young and old) and the Oregon Symphony.


"I don't know whether you could check this out or not because the recordings are not out yet, but I discovered the symphonic music of Wayne Shorter. It is incredible. It's not new to him but it's new getting it played. That music is incredible. It is beyond gospel, beyond jazz, beyond funk, beyond anything you can think of. It's just beyond it."


"There's a song by Rafael Méndez: 'La Virgen de la Macarena' or 'The Bullfighter's Song.' Now, you want something that has influenced me—whew. So I started playing when I was about 12, and it culminated when I was in college playing at concerts and even in a marching band at Shea Stadium for [an American Football League playoff game] between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Jets, in 3-degree weather. A song like that, all my trumpet technique and many of the song patterns that I follow when I play or improvise come from Rafael Méndez and the way he played. He was my childhood guide to how to play the trumpet. I really would put on the record player and emulate Rafael—the tonguing, the everything. And you'd be surprised how many times you hear 'The Bullfighter's Song' on TV."


"Baby Workout" by Jackie Wilson: "That would be some time around 7 or 8 that I could really remember memorizing music. 'Baby workout, work baby, workout.' I remember hearing him on the radio. 'Baby workout, work baby, workout.' I was listening to the radio on my own. I remember listening to the radio a lot."

"Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" by Pérez Prado: "There was a great deal of Cuban music down the street. We lived a mile from Eagle City in Tampa. I heard Cuban music all the time. We saw Cuban bands marching through the streets, which is when I told my mom I wanted to play that, pointing at the trumpet. I remember learning that song—the version that I could play, because really, when you hear real-time trumpet players play it, it's up in the stratosphere. The version that I could play with the school band made me the first chair trumpet player."


"Cold Sweat" by James Brown: "None of y'all should be living without... well actually, y'all can't live without it but you don't really know it. It's in everything. You see, when that song came out man, it changed—it changed all grooves. It made a new groove, it swung a new groove. Even Duke Ellington was aware of it. I first saw that band when I was 11 years old and they were so tight. And they were sequestered all the time; they rehearsed every day. So coming up with that, I can see how that happened with great creative minds. Throughout my life, I got to know most of the people who went in and out of that band, and I played on it several times myself. That was an institution. As James DePreist said to me—the great orchestral conductor [of the Oregon Symphony]—'If my symphony orchestra was as tight as James Brown's band, it would be an incredible symphony orchestra.' Anybody that know me, would already have told you, 'When you go in to interview Thara, he's going to talk about James Brown. And he's going to talk about James Brown because that music effectively, starting in 1961 or '62, along with the Civil Rights Movement, changed the Planet Earth forever.' Anybody that hears it, anywhere, at the top of Tibet with the monks, when they hear it, the same reaction. I played that tune in the middle of a city in South Korea. I played 'Cold Sweat,' there were about 80,000 people in the square, with my high school band from Beaverton, and they went crazy. They went crazy. I can't tell you how long we played that song—20 minutes, 30 minutes. It made the whole trip worthwhile for me."

"Musicology" by Prince: "When James Brown left this planet, he left it all to Prince."


Bassist Errick Lewis: "What a creative mind. He did this live recording at The Secret Society recently—the material was like jazz hip-hop. A lot of the tunes reflected on the jazz giants and then there was hip-hop in the groove. I loved it. I was knocked out."

"Ural Thomas is back, man. That's the real deal. When I first got to Portland in the '70s, that was the deal, man. You play behind Ural, that was the deal. The world has a way... a lot of stuff that James Brown got, he got from Ural. That's all I gotta say about that."

Drummer Mel Brown: Memory was a member of the Mel Brown Septet when the band won the international Hennessy Jazz Search competition sponsored by Playboy magazine in 1989, beating out some 700 other groups.

Bassist Leroy Vinnegar: “I played with for him 14 years.”


Why does Memory want you to add this track from his second record to your personal playlist? "Just listen to it. The tenderness and the gentleness in it. I spent so much of my time playing firebrand jazz just to make a living. Sometimes I just go against the grain. My whole life I was going against the grain. If you come to a club and you expect me to do one thing, I'm going to do another. Why? Because I can. Other people are limited to what they can do. I have no limitations."

A notion illustrated by the below piece of music. Now, listen as the song progresses and completely changes: "You see? I took this song way somewhere else. I've been thinking like that since I was a kid. See? It's gone way, way..."

Download Thara Memory’s “You Are Everything” from his second record 'Chronicle' and add it to your personal playlist.

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