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Divas of Jazz to present benefit concert Sunday


Hailey Niswanger, Esperanza Spalding give back to American Music Program

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: KAITLIN DALE -  Hailey Niswanger, formerly of West Linn, will be one of the guest artists at this Sunday's Divas of Jazz benefit concert for the American Music Program, founded by her mentor, jazz trumpeter Thara Memory.With the intent of supporting a program and a mentor who they credit with launching their careers as musicians, Grammy Award winner Esperanza Spalding and noted jazz saxophonist Hailey Niswanger will be guest artists in the Divas of Jazz concert to be held Aug. 26 at the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Portland.

The concert is a benefit for the American Music Program, the youth jazz education program founded by acclaimed Portland jazz trumpeter Thara Memory. Spalding, originally of Portland, and Niswanger, originally from West Linn, were members of the American Music Program during their high school years.

“I was an original member of the American Music Program,” said Niswanger. “The program completely changed my life. ... Thara has the power to change lives of young musicians — or any musician’s life — through his music and teachings. He has been such an amazing mentor, teacher, musician, friend for the Portland area and so many people in the world. We are so lucky we have him in Portland. He is one of the main reasons why the youth jazz scene in Portland is really thriving.”

Memory founded the American Music Program in the fall of 2005. Since that time it has become a nationally recognized leader in educating seventh through grade 12 students in American Art Music — Jazz. The goal of the program is to not only perform the music of American culture, including but not limited to Ellington, Basie, Coltrane, Armstrong and Davis, but also to imbue its finest qualities in the representative lives of the students, their families and the community.

Under Memory’s direction, the Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra regularly competes in — and wins — student competitions across the country, including the Monterey Jazz Festival, Essentially Ellington at Lincoln Center, the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Swing Central at the Savannah Music Festival and many more.

American Music program students leave high school with advanced performance skills and a deep understanding of the jazz art form.

“I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t been part of this program, if it weren’t for Thara. ... It’s really because of Thara that I went to Berklee (College of Music) and that I’m even so in love with jazz really. And now I’m in New York City playing with so many people I would not have met had I not been to that first Berklee festival back in the day. I just owe so much to him. He will be my teacher for life.”

Niswanger released her second album, “The Keeper” in April 2012.

Spalding was named “Best New Artist” at the 2011 Grammy Awards. She recently completed a European tour in support of her latest album “Radio Music Society,” a kaleidoscope collection celebrating the power of song. She has attracted a worldwide audience with an extensive list of high-profile performances including the Newport Jazz Festival, Central Park Summer Stage, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the Cape Town Jazz Festival in South Africa.

She has made multiple appearances at the White House, and was chosen by President Obama to perform at both the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Oslo, Norway — where the Nobel Prize is awarded — and also at the Nobel Peace Prize concert.

“Esperanza is an ardent supporter of jazz education,” Memory said. “When she comes home to Portland, Esperanza always goes out of her way to visit our rehearsals and share her expertise with our students. It’s an amazing opportunity for these kids to be able to work with a musician of her caliber.”

Four tracks on “Radio Music Society” feature the horn section of the American Music Program. Memory conducts and provides horn arrangements, while the soulful pianist and Portland native on “Hold on Me” is Janice Scroggins, who Spalding studied with as a child.

Both Memory and Scroggins influenced Spaulding’s career.

Both of them are phenomenal artists who aren’t well known outside of the Northwest,” said Spalding. “Janice Scroggins was, quite honestly, too deep for me when I was eight years old. She unifies completely the sounds of gospel, blues and jazz, our American roots music. And Dr. Thara Memory, the teacher I came up through, has dedicated his life to spreading the message of this music. I had to have his youth band on the record, because they’re part of my Music Society, too.”

Joining Spalding and Niswanger on stage will be jazz divas Linda Hornbuckle and Janice Scroggins as well as well known Portland musicians Farnell Newton, Renato Caranto, Stan Bock, Ben Mcdonald, Dan Brewster, Israel Annoh, Ben Jones and Peter Piazza.

The concert will be held Aug. 26 at Gerding Theater at the Armory. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 and $50 and can be purchased online at tickettomato.com. All ages are welcome.

“I am more than happy to come back and perform at this lay this benefit and I know the other guest artists feel the same,” Niswanger said. “We just all owe so much to Thara and (are) really, really grateful for all he has given to us and the Portland jazz scene in general.”