This week, Memory combines his roles as musician and educator in two Black History Month Extravaganzas, featuring some of Portland’s top jazz and R&B musicians, performing “music not normally played in Portland, from the African-American diaspora,” he says, including songs by the ’60s proto-soul band Dyke and the Blazers, Aretha Franklin, classic Stax Records artists and others. Willamette Week spoke to Memory about how he went about putting together the program.
WW: Why did you choose those songs?
Thara Memory: The African-American diaspora of music helped America out of the doldrums starting in the early ’60s. They were making African-American urban music, and this music became a large part of our American economy. This music was also the soul of our urban communities, and lots of the music nowadays is missing that ingredient that made the music really connect with the people. For a moment, it was something really beautiful, and I’m trying, in my small way, to make sure we do not lose the essence of this great music.
You have no idea of the consternation we go through preparing for this concert. You’re talking with literal geniuses of American music about how these things can be re-created, the same way an orchestra does when they take a work by [Aaron] Copland, like “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring,” and look at him conducting those pieces so they can do it authentically. I always wonder why I have to use analogies to European music to get people to understand the depth of what we do to get people to understand the music of the African-American diaspora. It makes me think the musical institutions are extremely flawed.
Do you think your efforts as an educator are helping to change those institutions?
I’m part of the change. But where are the other pieces of the puzzle? I’m still groping around in the dark for the other pieces. People who are changing things, like me, are getting older and dying out. I’m desperately trying to put people on the planet who will carry it on, and Esperanza is one of them.
America loved it when the music made untold billions of dollars for them. Now that the digital age is upon us, it’s no longer a commodity, like cotton. That’s the problem. That’s what I’m trying to get people to understand. The problem is not racism. It’s economism.
SEE IT: Thara Memory’s Black History Month Extravaganza is at Jimmy Mak’s, 221 NW 10th Ave., on Saturday, Feb. 1. 7:30 and 10 pm. $18 general admission, $20 reserved seating. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian until 9:30 pm.