Esperanza Spalding: Rewriting the Future of Jazz
The young musician makes waves with a unique sound—and an unexpected Grammy award.
Esperanza Spalding grabbed international attention when she won the 2011 Grammy award for Best New Artist—beating the hugely popular Canadian pop star Justin Bieber in the process. But she was creating innovative music and breaking rules long before golden statues, acceptance speeches and television cameras were ever involved.
The vibrant young singer, composer and upright bass player performs a blissful blend of jazz and Latin music, earning rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. The New York Times described her as “luminous” on stage, “a major chord of exuberance, swinging behind her stand-up bass, eyes closed, singing to the lights, an evangelist of joy in various cool time signatures.”
While Spalding may have burst upon the world stage with her Grammy award, she is anything but an overnight success. Rather, her musical prowess and admirable career come from a lifetime of musical study and dedication, as well as an unwavering commitment to learning and growth—as Spalding modestly told the Times, “I’m not a master of my craft. I am still a student.”
Jazz from the ground up
Spalding was born in Portland, Oregon in 1984, the daughter of a single mother who constantly sang made-up songs around the house. Spalding’s first instrument was the violin, and she primarily learned to play from an educational organization called the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. “As a child, I didn’t realize how valuable this program was,” she says. “It was an underfunded organization that somehow scraped together enough means and support to provide instruments, lessons, summer workshops, and weekly orchestral and sectional rehearsals to any kid who applied and could keep up with the work. That’s really saying something.”
Spalding took the musicality and skills she learned to the acoustic bass at age 15 and began studying classical music at Portland State University just a year later. By the spring of 2005, she had earned her bachelor’s degree and was hired to teach at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a springboard from which she began working with a wide range of international jazz artists that included pianist Michel Camilo and guitarist Pat Metheny.
Spalding recorded and released her first album, “Junjo,” in 2006, and two other albums—the ambitious “Esperanza” and the string-infused “Chamber Music Society”—followed during the next four years. She has received numerous awards during her short career, as well as an invitation by President Barack Obama to perform at twin Nobel Prize events. Her rigorous schedule includes touring around the world and preparing for her upcoming album, “Radio Music Society”—and by the look of things, this is just the beginning.
Come out swinging
When Spalding began making an impression on the jazz scene, she turned heads—not only was it unusual for a woman to be playing bass, it was also unusual for a bass player to stand front and center, singing and leading a combo. “It is really curious that there aren’t more bassists up front in bands,” she says. “I can’t really explain that. For me, it’s just natural love for the instrument and its role, and the love I have had for years of singing and being the messenger of the melody, the one who tells the story and connects first with the audience.”
When Spalding plays bass to support other bands—and isn’t singing her own original material—she steps effortlessly into a supporting role, laying down a solid foundation on which her musical colleagues can build. She has found, though, that the character of a band’s music can change significantly when bass does take center stage. “Musicians start to think of the counterpoint between the melody and the bass line more predominantly when I’m in front,” she says. “Visually and psychologically, it makes them pay more attention to it. That does something interesting to how we play together—and I like it.”
Regardless of where she stands on stage, Spalding always strives to grow as a musician and learn from whatever influences she encounters. “I was just reading a book about poetry,” she relates. “It described ways to use the sound of words and the syntax of a sentence without changing the meaning or using incorrect grammar, and how to throw in different words that could be used to describe the same thing, but carry with them their own feel, and a world of connotations.
“In the back of my mind, I immediately felt, ‘I can incorporate that into my music,’ ” she continues. “Just reading that taught me something. Now it’s in me and I can use it.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.