The Hippest Cats in Town

Story by Reuben Unrau
Photo by Ashley Collingwood

Saxophone player Sam Seachrist pumps out some notes to kick off a performance at Jimmy Mak’s nightclub in Portland, Oregon.

It’s a warm Monday evening in Portland, Oregon, and Jimmy Mak’s jazz club is sold out. Inside the venue, the audience hollers in approval of the music. “Yeah!” some shout. “Play it loud!” Cymbals crash in exclamation and trumpets and trombones sway in overlapping juxtaposition. Dressed in suits and ties, the musicians of this 20-piece big band play jazz that rings with the seasoned soulfulness of a 1950s Duke Ellington Orchestra, but they are far removed from the genre’s golden era. This is a group of fresh-faced teenagers, none older than 18, and they are the American Music Program Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra (AMP), one of the most prestigious youth bands in the country.

AMP is a public institution offering specialized instruction in the art of one of America’s oldest music traditions: jazz. The program is open to seventh- through twelfth-grade students, but to participate, they must audition and be prepared to dedicate nearly 12 hours a week to rehearsals. Since the band’s inception in 2005, AMP has competed in, and many times won, major high school jazz competitions, including The Next Generation Festival in California, Swing Central at the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia, and the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival in New York City.

The program’s intense commitment requirement has yielded numerous accomplishments for its alumni: Students have gone on to receive full scholarships to top music schools such as the Berklee College of Music, Julliard, and the Manhattan School of Music. The band has even fostered Grammy-winning bassist and vocalist, Esperanza Spalding. Many of AMP’s musicians, past and present, have demonstrated a natural talent for jazz, but much of the group’s success is attributed to its director, Thara Memory.


Beyond the hours spent memorizing charts, to succeed in Memory’s band students must possess the determination to handle his brutally direct, yet successful, approach to music education. At rehearsals, Memory is seemingly never satisfied. After practicing the song “Peak,” he calls out the drummer for playing too tight and compressed. “That two-beat still sounds funny. You better fix that,” he advises.

Turning his attention to the saxophone section, Memory hounds the musicians for not playing their lines in unison. If a student talks back for any reason, Memory shows little patience. Shuylier Neilson, a new addition to the trumpet section this year, begins mumbling an excuse for not knowing his part only to be interrupted by feedback from Memory. “Don’t talk to me, blow at me,” he cries out. “‘Cause you ain’t sayin’ nothin’!”

Although a bit rough, this unorthodox approach to education is a testament to Memory’s devotion to music. “To Thara, jazz is a sacred music,” says Kiran Bolsey, a 16-year-old AMP trumpet player. “He expects us to treat it that way, too.”

Sun Richter, AMP’s only female student, belts out a tune before saying goodnight to the crowd at Jimmy Mak’s.

A Lasting Memory

To fully grasp Memory’s high expectations and say-it-to-your-face criticism, one must know his journey through jazz: In 1948, Memory was born into a world rooted in rich music and culture in Tampa, Florida. His neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez, introduced Memory to the trumpet when he was eight years old and he became infatuated with its warm, brassy sound. Living in the city’s College Hill neighborhood, an area dominated by blacks and Latinos, the path that led Memory to the trumpet was as clear as the Cuban rhythms he heard while sitting on the porch of his family’s apartment. Memory says his mother often worried when he spent afternoons following Cuban horn groups marching through the streets. “What is wrong with you?” he recalls his mother asking. “I just got the bug,” he would respond.

When Memory was ten, his family relocated to Eatonville, Florida, where he continued to musically thrive in a community surrounded by jazz, Latin, European, and classical. Eatonville’s flourishing artistic environment was home to talent such as Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and was a platform for African-Americans to gain a voice during racial oppression that permeated America during the 1950s. “We didn’t have anybody in my community trying to be a Wall Street stockbroker,” he says. “The culture promoted what it had at its best, and that was art. In Eatonville nobody worried about the glass ceiling.”

In 1959 at age 11, Memory was already playing trumpet at local jazz clubs. But before he was allowed to perform, a bandleader came to his house to talk with his mother and then escorted Memory to and from the venue. Being the youngest musician on stage was never a worry for the rising trumpeter. “It was a very nurtured environment,” he says. “Intimidation wasn’t a word in our culture.”

When Memory was 22 and touring with renowned rhythm and blues artist Joe Tex in 1970, he arrived in Portland. Walking down Union Avenue, today known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and exploring North Portland’s black community, Memory says he was taken aback by the sight of the Northwest’s serene landscape and the beautiful homes lining the streets. They were nothing like those he had seen in the slums of Birmingham or Los Angeles. “Black people actually live here?” he remembers asking a local at the time. “Well then, I’m not going anywhere else.”

Teaching From The Soul

Musically, Memory has seen and done it all. He has laid down funk with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown; he has traded lines with be-bop icon Dizzy Gillespie, and he has grooved with Motown legends like The Commodores. But in 2005, Memory’s career shifted gears. A diabetes-related kidney failure resulted in the amputation of three fingers on his right hand, one finger on his left, and the lower half of his right leg, rendering him unable to walk without a prosthetic leg and a cane. Perhaps most devastating, was the loss of his fingers, which left him unable to play the trumpet.

This musical handicap did not last long, however, as Memory commissioned a specially designed left-handed trumpet with an extended third valve that allowed him to use his pinky. Today, Memory is still hitting the high notes and swinging with the same spirit as his days in Eatonville. “I’m a bulldog,” he says. “I will not lay down, stay sick, and die in a wheelchair.”

The same year as the operation, and after more than 30 years of teaching jazz at local high schools and universities, Memory founded the American Music Project; with public funding and complete directorial independence, he was able to focus his education on only the most driven and dedicated students of jazz in the city.

Thara Memory, director of the American Music Program Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra, requests donations at Jimmy Mak’s in Portland, Oregon. Memory’s music program is largely supported by donations, which are used to fund activities like traveling to competitions in New York City.

Among the 20 musicians enrolled in the AMP orchestra, the student that has perhaps proven himself the most in the Portland jazz scene is 18-year-old trumpet player, Noah Conrad, who began playing trumpet in the third grade. After hearing music played by trumpet legends like Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard and learning about the liberating nature of jazz improvisation, Conrad says there was no looking back. He joined AMP as a freshman in high school, and since then has earned an impressive résumé of awards, including the Outstanding Soloist award at the 2013 Essentially Ellington Festival in New York. “It seems like in music such as rock, you’d get to the point where you’d learn everything there is to know about it,” Conrad says. “I think it’s impossible to learn everything in jazz.”

While it may seem impossible to learn it all, Conrad is certainly doing everything he can to make the most out of every opportunity available. In addition to playing with AMP, Conrad participates in three other bands and takes private trumpet lessons from two other instructors. On top of that, he studies piano to deepen his understanding of harmony and chord structure. “He has so much potential; it will be exciting to see what he does with it in the next few years,” Memory says to the crowd at Jimmy Mak’s.

Studying under Memory’s direction, students find that rehearsals are more than just tireless takes of charts and fine-tuning every minute detail of a set. Rather, Memory is known to digress into long-winded anecdotes about his tumultuous life in the jazz world and the history behind the music. His stories, which range from tales of living in the segregated South to encounters with jazz legends, aim to provide real-world perspective for his students. A favorite among Memory’s tales is his story about meeting jazz great Art Blakey. After hearing Blakey perform, Memory approached the famed drummer and asked him how he kept such great rhythm. He advised Memory to lie down on the floor in front of his bass drum and listen close as Blakey played a demonstration. Blakey began faintly tapping the bass drum, at the same time telling Memory to feel the bass, not just hear it. This philosophy became Memory’s golden principle for drummers who pass through his band.

Behind all the contemporary lectures and lessons, Memory constantly reminisces about jazz’s glory years—a time when the genre was a prominent feature of the American music landscape. “In comparison, today would be like a tree that’s totally barren, that only has one branch with only one thing blooming on it,” Memory says. Year after year, Memory teaches his students with the hope of planting seeds that will “bloom” jazz back into the cultural consciousness.

It’s All In The Blues

To Memory, jazz is built upon the blues—a music whose roots can be traced back to slavery and strikes a cord with natural feelings of pain and torment. At Jimmy Mak’s, he announces the song “Empty Town Blues” by describing its timeless emotion: “This tune is like if you went to Harlem and there was an atomic bomb explosion and nobody was left. As you walk through the streets and hear the reminiscence of the horns, the blues are still being played.” The song swoons eerily; the trombones drone low tones and the solo clarinetist, a grimace of passion covering his face, plays drawn-out, high-pitched accents. The song’s effect on Memory is evident in the way he pounds his feet and shakes his hands wildly in the air before throwing his flat cap to the floor.

His soulful relationship with blues-fueled jazz has spurred his students to treat their instruments as a channel for human expression rather than a tool for playing fast. To foster this emotional connection, Memory requires his students to memorize their parts instead of merely reading notes on a page. “He showed me that audiences react to the blues more than any advanced time signatures or harmonic vocabulary,” says Aaron Reihs, 18, a saxophone player who is a featured soloist in many of the band’s songs at Jimmy Mak’s. “I think that’s especially important knowledge in today’s world, when such a large population of people have completely lost interest in jazz music.”

At AMP, Memory teaches music as a language that can empower his students to become proficient jazz conversationalists. Jazz is largely spur of the moment and soloists often explore a song’s rhythm and harmony by drawing on the energy of surrounding musicians. To help students understand the intimacy required for improvisation, he urges them to listen to famous jazz recordings and transcribe—or “steal” as he calls it—lines from their solos. “It’s like teaching a baby how to talk. It’s just building a vocabulary,” he says.

Louie Leager, a former bassist with AMP and now a sophomore studying music at Michigan State University, auditioned for the band in 2010 and was criticized straightaway for playing with a poor sense of rhythm. Memory advised Leager to dedicate his time to transcribing solos from legendary bassist Ray Brown. Soon after Leager began playing his bass lines with an improved, relaxed cadence. “Memory would preach that if you learn from the masters that shaped this music, you will always be well off,” Leager says. “You can really never go wrong from stealing from others because it’s all just part of learning the language of jazz.”

At rehearsal, AMP musicians practice the saxophone while Memory adjusts his prosthetic leg. Memory’s leg was amputated after a diabetes-related kidney failure in 2005. He also lost four of his fingers, but he continues to play with a specially designed trumpet.

An Invitation to Women

Perhaps Memory’s most crowning achievements are the results he gets from women who have studied under his direction. The charismatic bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding has won three Grammy awards including Best New Artist in 2011, beating out pop megastar Justin Bieber and becoming the first jazz artist to win that category. At this year’s Grammy awards, she took home the honor for Best Vocal Jazz Album for her album, Radio Music Society. The other Grammy was shared with Memory: a 2013 Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist for her song “City of Roses,” a tribute to Portland featuring AMP playing instrumentals.

Despite jazz’s historically male-dominated landscape, Memory has had great success teaching women by giving them what he calls an “equal education.” Memory believes if women hope to thrive as musicians, they must be prepared to handle criticisms they will eventually encounter on the bandstand. As a result, his harshly direct evaluations and brooding presence in rehearsals is shared equally among his male and female students. “They better not say ‘boo,’” says Memory when talking about toughening up his female students.

The only female in this year’s group is 14-year-old vocalist, Sun Richter. The petite, short-haired high school freshman says she is aware of the high level of achievement expected of students who pass through AMP, and she has already gotten used to Memory’s unorthodox teaching techniques. “When I first joined the group, he would yell so much that I almost had to leave,” she says, “But now I understand that he only really yells because he is actually pushing us to be better. If he doesn’t yell at all and he doesn’t want to talk to you, then he has given up.”

On stage at Jimmy Mak’s, Richter sings Louis Armstrong’s “Sweet Georgia Brown” with a confidence that prompts more shouts of approval from the audience. When the song’s finale climaxes, Richter compresses the last breaths of sound out of her lungs. Silent, she smiles at the crowd before setting the microphone back on its stand.

It is 9:30 p.m. and the American Music Project band has played for more than two hours. The teenage musicians’ faces are weary with exhaustion. This show was similar to rehearsals as Memory gave into his anecdotes and commanded attention by demanding silence in the audience between sets. Before the final song is played, Memory grasps the microphone and reminds the audience about the young players’ legitimacy and their absolute dedication to the music: “They may seem like butterflies today, but they gonna be cockroaches tomorrow. Everybody knows there ain’t nothin’ you can do to kill a cockroach.”

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