Portland’s most prominent music teacher is facing allegations that he was inappropriate with some teenage students. Thara Memory has been coaching high school musicians in his American Music Program for over a decade. The news has sent the city’s musical community into a tailspin.
In his prime, 69-year-old Thara Memory was a showstopper. This YouTube video of Memory playing with Mel Brown’s quintet in 1988 gives you a sense of how much speed and fire he brought to the stage.
But around town, Memory is best known as an educator. His most famous student, Esperanza Spalding, is an international star.
In 2013, the same year they shared a Grammy award for jazz arrangement, Spalding and Memory told OPB’s Oregon Art Beat about their work together.
But this week, musicians, fans and others were stunned to learn Multnomah County prosecutors have indicted Memory on 11 charges, including eight incidents of third-degree sex abuse. Two underage students and two adult women who used to study with Memory told police he touched them on their breasts, cheeks and mouths in episodes dating back to 2013.
Memory has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Lisa Ludwig, asks people to be patient and mindful of the years her client spent providing music education to kids in Northeast Portland who otherwise would not have had it.
“An accusation like this of the touching of a cheek, an unwanted kiss,” Ludwig said, “those things all have to be weighed together.”
Ludwig warned against jumping to conclusions, alluding to the potential power dynamics of the case. Over the years, Memory has taught hundreds of students. Many are white. Some come from families of means.
“I think it’s easy in our culture, generally, to make an accusation against an African-American man. The presumption of innocence isn’t always well protected in those situations. Do I have evidence he’s been discriminated against? At this point, no.”
And it’s widely known Memory is witheringly critical of his students. That 2013 Art Beat special shows Memory in rehearsal joking around with the kids, but also talking to them in brutally blunt terms about their playing.
For years, there were students and parents who found it hard to argue with Memory’s results. Memory coached his older musicians to a victory at a prestigious Essentially Ellington competition at New York’s Lincoln Center last year.
Some are hearing that music differently now.
Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote is on the board of The Childrens’ Center, a child abuse intervention group in Oregon City. His office is not involved in the Memory allegations but has prosecuted high-profile cases in which a teacher or coach within an elite program was held to different standards, because of what they had to offer.
“Parents can be drawn into teachers or coaches who, through their work, can promise success, future fame — whatever it is, music, sports,” Foote said. “It’s alluring to everyone because parents want the best for their kids. And so they’re drawn into it. And the children are reluctant to say anything for many, many different reasons. The key to remember is: don’t give up control of your child.”
Thara Memory’s jazz education program, called Pacific Crest Sinfonietta, declined to make a statement about the charges. The man listed on financial documents as the board chair, Michael Grice, said he’s not close enough to the organization to comment. But he added rehearsals and performances will continue without Memory, as will another program for younger kids at King Elementary. The King students have no part in the allegations. Memory rarely conducted classes there himself.
A lot of parents with kids in Memory’s program say they’re waiting to see what information comes out about the charges before deciding what to do.
Memory has been candid about living a rough life as a younger man — the drugs he took, the violent things he did.
Last year, Memory spoke to OPB about his childhood in Florida, and how it affected his adult life in Portland.
“Every day,” Memory said, “When I leave my house and walk down the street when the police pass by me, I look. If they stop their car by me, I take a really big deep breath: Remember what your daddy says, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’
“I watched my father and the police would stop and accost us in the South. ‘Yes sir, boss. No sir, boss. I’m on my way to work, boss.’ And I would go like, 'Daddy, you don’t talk like that! What’s wrong with you?' And he’d say , 'Shut up.'
"So in every other aspect of my life, I will get up in the man’s face, but the police — I go limp. I won’t try to say I got rights. I don’t have any rights.
"But my students, I can tell you for a fact, if they saw an encounter like that, will come forward and say, “You wrong. That’s my teacher.” And will step up for the change. They will make the change. It will happen. But I didn’t expect it to happen in my lifetime.”
Memory’s health is fragile. He’s on oxygen, takes kidney dialysis and has lost two fingers and part of one leg to complications of diabetes. If he were found guilty on all charges and sentenced to the maximum penalties, he’d be looking at 10 years in prison.