Reflections: Memory, melody and jazz

We’re gearing up for the Portland screening of the film “Una Vida” on Monday, April 27. A panel discussion from three neuro-experts will follow the film, including artist Tim DuRoche. Tim will share his expertise on New Orleans jazz and the intra-psychic impact of music on the mind. Today, he talks memory and music as our “On the Brain” guest blogger…

UNAVIDA-POSTERAs I look forward to the screening and post-film discussion of Nicholas Bazan’s Una Vida on April 27 at OMSI’s Empirical Theater, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about jazz, memory and how music acts as such a powerful beacon – whether we realize it or not.

Because jazz spans the 20th century, it is a floodgate for mood and memory, flickering gone reflections: a first kiss, a 50th anniversary, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, many innumerable rites of passage.

Jazz players are often hired for musical situations known as “casuals” —which can be a corporate gig, wedding reception, art opening, Christmas-time-at-the-Fred-Meyer-deli— it’s pretty hard to do this for too long without getting “the request.” I began to think about this years ago: that a request is often about wanting access to something that is more than a simple song.

Some musicians play cooly with a listener’s insatiable appetite for reminiscence and avoid the request or are resentful of the simple pleasure that comes with “playing our song” for those requesting not only our permission to embark, but our trust and collaboration as a harbormaster of these kernels of identity and remembrance.

Honoring the request can be an inescapably intimate act —profound, really—to be trusted with the raw materials of someone else’s memory…to act as a conduit, accelerating and reversing time for another, suggesting, reminding, or date-stamping snapshots of desire and a life together through a song and a dance.

You wouldn’t want to shatter a five-year- old’s hopes for Santa, so why would you toy with the fragility of emotion that is welled-up between the box-step of “Deep Purple” or the faraway-from-home-in-a-trench immediacy of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas?”

There are certain songs (and times like the winter holidays brings them out in spades), fire-lit songs that make you feel like cardigan-clad Perry Como or Jimmy Stewart. These songs move us. Every time. They’re simple. Yet they remind us of what’s important. Perhaps what’s been lost.

And it was music that tripped the switch. It’s palpable. Chord struck. Juxtaportation commences. Moment shared. It’s part of the social contract and the möbius strip of the creative exchange and it happens so often between total strangers.

It is a remarkable illustration of Martin Buber’s idea that all real living is meeting.


Tim DuRoche


Tim DuRoche is a jazz musician, radio-host, writer and public artist living in Portland. He works as director of programs for the World Affairs Council of Oregon