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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Playing Jazz by Memory

Playing Jazz by Memory

Thara Memory of Portland helped keep the young jazz players' attention with humor while preparing them for a concert performance Tuesday night. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Thara Memory of Portland helped keep the young jazz players' attention with humor while preparing them for a concert performance Tuesday night. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

"Tonight," said Baker High School Jazz Ensemble pianist Heather Brady, "we actually made music, rather than playing it."

The difference for Brady and about 35 other musicians was a day-long workshop by Portland jazz trumpeter, composer and educator Thara Memory.

The workshop, held for the jazz ensembles of Baker and La Grande high schools, culminated with a concert Tuesday night in the Baker High School auditorium.

Memory has worked with the La Grande students the past four years; this was the first time he's held a workshop for Baker City students, too.

"He gave us all a new perspective on music," said BHS trumpeter Matt Jager. "It's more about getting a feel for the music and listening to each other than just playing the notes on a paper. Those solos you heard tonight were an improvisation, but he definitely had a hand in them."

"I really enjoyed collaborating with another ensemble," said saxophonist Max Bulinski, who, like Jager and Brady, was called upon for several solos during the concert. "And to have this awesome instrumentalist who really knows his stuff was a bonus. He has a great sense of humor, and he made it fun for us."

The feeling was mutual, Memory said during a break in the workshop.

"If one of these kids grows up to be a music teacher or plays professionally, it will be worth it" to make the journey from Portland and take time from his own work, he said.

Young musicians in Eastern Oregon may be disadvantaged by their relative lack of exposure to great jazz, but they do enjoy one advantage, Memory said.

"Your isolation from the urban center diminishes the amount of urban distractions," he said.

Growing up in the 1960s in Eatonville, Fla., an Orlando suburb, Memory said he was the beneficiary of many events like the one he made possible Tuesday.

"All the high school band directors loved each other, and education was an open forum then," he said. "We were always getting together with kids from other schools.

"Nowadays, (educators) are fearful for their jobs, and schools are more isolated. It takes brave souls like (LHS band director) Jim Howell and (BHS band director) Jeff Sizer to make it work.

"We've got to figure out a way to make (collaboration) work on a much larger scale," he said during the concert. "These kids are taking education into their own hands, and they're taking care of business."

Memory himself took care of business during the workshop by holding a cowbell in his left hand and a drumstick in his right, constantly beating the time he wanted. Stressing rhythm during the day would pay off during the evening's performance, he predicted.

"We listen to music with our ears, but we hear it with our hearts," he said. "I feel that rhythm is one of our highest expressions of humanitarianism."

Memory has played with many popular recording artists, including The Four Tops and Natalie Cole. But Tuesday was all jazz. He led the combined ensembles through Horace Silver's "Filthy McNasty," which he told the concert crowd "is Spongebob Squarepants' favorite tune."

The ensembles also combined for "Song for My Father" and a Count Basie number called "Queen Bee," a song that produced surprising results for Memory.

"I was quite surprised," he told the audience. "It took us only a couple of minutes to put this one together."

The bands also offered separate pieces, and Memory strolled onstage periodically to produce soaring trumpet solos.

"He has great rapport with kids," Howell said. "He gets right in their face and tells them all the work they'll have to put into their music to make a career of it. He's been there and done that, and he's a top-flight musician in his own right. What he offers these kids is a wealth of real-life musicianship, so what he teaches them has an authority of its own. His great gift is that he feeds their inner selves in a special way."

Indeed, much of what Memory taught the students Tuesday was non-musical. After four years of watching Memory at work, Howell knew what he would offer students even before the workshop began.

"He's one of the few teachers (Memory teaches part-time at an arts magnet school in Beaverton) who helps students make the connection between their musical and their spiritual lives," Howell said. "He tells them how to structure their lives, and most of us (teachers) don't get close to those realities. These students know how hard they have to fight to even fit music into their (class) schedules."

Sizer said he was very pleased that Memory and Howell could include Baker High School students in the workshop, which was paid for by both schools.

"It's put our kids in touch with a real working jazz musician, and it's also put them in touch with kids from another school who have the same interests they do," the BHS director said. "It's built bridges between our schools."

That's the idea, Memory said.

"You've got a great sense of community here," he said during the concert. "I'm sad to say, that's not the case where I live."

 
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