PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Newly released police reports show that the alleged high school victims of Thara Memory, a celebrated Portland jazz performer and teacher, wrestled with an unusual dilemma last year when contacted by a detective.
Should they provide information to get Memory indicted, and brave the backlash from “bitchy” boys in the band? Talk to the local legend privately? Or just wait for the sickly man to die?
Memory, a Grammy award-winning composer and trumpet player, died last month at the age of 68, four months after his indictment on 11 counts of misdemeanor sex abuse.
He never had the chance to defend himself in court. But reports documenting the accounts of his alleged victims show why prosecutors decided to charge him, putting his storied career to an ignominious end.
News of the prosecution drove a rift through the close-knit Portland jazz community, one that still hasn’t healed, says Derek Sims, a jazz teacher who worked with one of Memory’s alleged victims.
“Half the people think he didn’t do it; the other half think he could,” Sims said.
“And the truth is that he did.”
Local jazz legend
Memory was a Portland jazz great who often played with noted musicians Obo Addy and Mel Brown.
But what made him a legend was his teaching and leadership of youth jazz bands. His hard-driving style caused some to applaud him and others to call him abusive and over the line.
For years, Memory oversaw the American Music Program Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra, which accepts students from around the region. Many of his students went on to greater success, including Esperanza Spalding, a nationally known, award-winning musician for whom Memory was a mentor.
“As I’ve seen first hand since I was about 8,” she told the Tribune about Memory earlier this year, “he has committed his life and talent to passing on his musical knowledge and creating realistic performance, rehearsal and team/ensemble environments that challenge young musicians to work at a professional level, so they’ll be prepared to go on into a life in music, or any career that requires self-discipline, individual practice and team work.”
As the indictment was being released, containing few details of the case, Spalding came out in his defense, and others did, too. Some noted his abrasive teaching style.
“His verbal style doesn’t work for all students (or their parents) who often take his critique as a personal affront to their personhood or feelings,” Spalding told the Tribune.
S. Renee Mitchell, a writer and activist who collaborated with Memory on a jazz opera in 2011, said in an email the charges were hard to believe. “He’s a tough administrator. He loves to push kids to their potential and I know not all students or parents like that.”
Initial student complaint
The allegations against Memory first came to law enforcement attention in March 2016, when a 19-year-old student of Sims, who is a jazz teacher at Portland State University, came to him with a story about a four-hour trumpet lesson. The student said Memory caressed her back and talked to her about sex, urging her to masturbate. He gave her a ride home, and grabbed her breast, she said.
Sims, a former student of Memory’s, had succeeded him in Mel Brown’s band and also took over leadership of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony from him when Memory’s health declined years ago.
“She didn’t know what to do,” Sims recalled to the Tribune. “I said we’re going to the police immediately.”
The student told Portland State University police that Memory said he wanted a 10- or 20-year “partnership” with her, an apparent reference to his work mentoring stars like Spalding. But first he needed to spend more time with her to make sure he “liked her,” she recalled.
How did it feel when he hugged her in their first lesson?
“Bizarre,” she said, according to a police report. “I tried to be open-minded.”
A PSU detective tried to get Memory to admit sex abuse on the phone, by having the student call him and record it.
The 19-year-old student asked him to stop coming on to her, complaining that he’d touched her chest and “it was not OK.”
“I’m definitely telling you that if you don’t want me to touch you, I won’t touch you,” he said, according to the PSU police report.
PSU issued an exclusion order banning Memory from campus.
Others come forward
Having heard about the PSU case, a 16-year-old former member of Memory’s band contacted Portland Police Detective Jeff Myers last September.
She told Myers that two years earlier, Memory had groomed her to have sex with him when she turned 18, grabbed her breast and twisted it, kissed her, urged her to think of him while masturbating, and told her it’s the responsibility of adults to “train” kids in sex.
She’d called her teacher and asked him to stop. Her mom was listening in, but had been told only of inappropriate remarks, not touching.
The girl quit Memory’s youth band in early 2016, frustrated at her status in the band and disturbed by Memory again talking about how “sexy” she was.
Talking to Sims and another local jazz teacher named Alan Jones, Detective Myers realized other former Memory students had stories, too. In all, he found three others who said Memory had kissed them inappropriately or pressured them to have sex. None had sex with him.
An older former student shared a text showing a 15-year-old in 2014 had complained that Memory kissed her on the neck. And a male student confirmed overhearing Memory telling the girl they would run away together.
Myers arranged another recorded call to Memory, intended to trap the teacher into an admission.
The 16-year-old called Memory and said she wanted to rejoin the band, saying, “I know that I have these feelings for you, and I’m just, I’m not confused about them anymore.”
He responded, “OK, look, just come back to practice, OK … The rest of it, well, the rest of it, well, well, it’ll get, it’ll get done somewhere down the road.”
“Are you still attracted to me? I, I need a teacher,” she said.
“I will be your teacher, okay,” Memory responded.
“And the other thing?” she said.
“I don’t do anything else,” Memory said. “I’m a 68-year-old man in poor health.”
Asked if he liked touching her “boob,” Memory replied, “You’re crazy, I gotta go. Bye.”
Students weighed consequences
Had Memory lived long enough, he would have seemed a frail figure to a jury: weak from dialysis and diabetes, missing several fingers, pulling an oxygen tank while walking with the aid of a prosthetic leg.
His health was an issue for his accusers as well.
Text messages show how Memory’s students weighed the likelihood that he might die against the odds that he could continue mistreating female students.
“If we don’t testify, like we are letting it happen to future girls?” texted one of them.
“Very good point, but also he won’t even be alive that long, I feel like,” said another.
Chimed in another girl, “… honestly yeah, he’s literally dying, this would kinda just be dick move from all of us.”
One replied, “I mean he deserves it tho.”
They talked about the good that Memory had done for their bandmates.
“And like the band is so important for the community, kids depend on it for their futures, but is it worth what he does to girls?” one texted.
“But how would we even prove our stories anyway? Also ours are mostly of verbal, not physical abuse,” a girl texted.
“He tried to kiss me on the mouth and once he tried to touch my boob,” texted the 16-year-old.
“He did kiss you though,” responded another girl. “You said that.”
“Yes it was nasty,” the 16-year-old agreed. “I ran away.”
Since the messages show how the 16-year-old’s account changed from Memory “trying” to touch her to grabbing her breast and twisting it, they may well have been used to question her credibility.
One of his alleged victims told the Tribune they struggled to overcome the skepticism from his fans in the band.
“I don’t know why they wanted to look up to him so much,” she said. “Everything he did toward me was done in a very manipulative way.”
The laudatory mourning after his death “disgusted me,” she added. “I decided not to forgive him — because I don’t have to forgive him.”
The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.