Portland band wins Essentially Ellington in NYC

Emotional performance honored its ailing director, Thara Memory

The American Music Program of Portland in a 2014 photo posted to their Facebook page.
The American Music Program of Portland in a 2014 photo posted to their Facebook page.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The American Music Program of Portland, Oregon, has won Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington high school jazz band competition after an emotional performance honoring its ailing director.

“When you are playing from memory you play from the heart,” trumpet player Steve Montecucco said.

The student musicians dedicated their performance to their director Thara Memory, who founded the American Music Program in 2005 as a regional jazz youth orchestra, Marsalis said. Memory has been in poor health in recent years due to complications from diabetes.

Wynton Marsalis, JALC’s Managing and Artistic Director, presented the band with the first-place trophy and a $5,000 award at Saturday night’s finals concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall.

“This performance is unlike anything we’ve ever done,” baritone saxiphone player Samuel Seacrist said. “It’s just unreal.”

Marsalis, who helped judge the competition, said he was impressed that the Portland band played one of Duke Ellington’s most difficult pieces, “The Tattooed Bride,” from memory.

“It’s the Olympics of the sport of jazz,” Montecucco said. “If you make it it means you’re one of the best bands in the world.”

Click here to watch the award-winning performance

Memory started the American Music Program in Portland in 2005. Since then, he has dealt with health issues related to diabetes, but that hasn’t stopped him from helping students live their dreams.

“We can brag now, here in Portland, Oregon the number one jazz source for secondary students is here,” Memory said.

Some students said this performance will live on in their hearts as they prepare to graduate.

“Because of Thara I will be doing this the rest of my life,” pianist Charlie Brown said.

Last year’s winner, the Tucson Jazz Institute, took second place, while Lexington High School from Massachusetts finished third.

Memory won a Grammy with his former student Esperanza Spalding in 2013 for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists for the song “City of Roses” from her album “Radio Music Society.” The track also features students from the American Music Program.

The three-day Essentially Ellington competition featured 15 finalist bands — chosen from among 88 entries — performing Ellington compositions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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