Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding has been hailed as a prodigy on the acoustic double bass, but she made a name for herself when she became the spoiler alert in 2011 snatching the GRAMMY for Best New Artist from the obvious favorite of the night, Justin Bieber, and becoming the first and only person to receive the award as a jazz artist.
Spalding has made her mark on America’s soundtrack in a male dominated field by playing a multitude of genres including blues, funk, hip hop, pop fusion, Brazllian, and Afro-Cuban styles.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Spalding played classical violin as a child and played in an indie band during her teenage years. She started playing the acoustic bass at 15 years old. She dropped out of school and enrolled in classes at Portland State University and at 16 years old, she earned her B.A. At 20, she was hired as an instructor at Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2005.
Drummer, composer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington, first met Spalding during those early Berklee years and spoke to NPR about her impact in the world of jazz.
“If we go back in the music’s history,” explains Carrington, “there are very few people who are accomplished in all of the areas that Esperanza is. She’s a virtuosic bass player. Her voice is capable of acrobatics. Her compositions are not easy. Her lyrics are poetry. And she puts it all together in a way that’s commercially appealing. She’s setting an extreme example for young women in music.”
Spalding’s bass line style is indicative of being influenced by R&B artists like Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, and Earth, Wind, & Fire. Her voice mirrors that of Diana Ross or Roberta Flack rather than the jazz artists that came before her. Her songs don’t tell of desire and longing that is evident in many of the women jazz singers’ songs, but Spalding refuses to operate from a place of emotional want instead bringing the music in line with contemporary women’s values.
After touring with various artists that included Patti Austin, Dave Samuels, and Regina Carter to name a few, in 2006, Spalding released Junjo, an offering of originals and standards. In 2008, she released Esperanza which highlighted her Afro-Latin and Brazilian influences and it topped Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart where it remained for over 70 weeks! Chamber Music Society was released in 2010 and was a concert program featuring strings. The album included the songs “Wild is the Wind” and “Inutil Paisegem.” The album reached number one on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart and garnered her the GRAMMY in 2011 for Best New Artist.
Since then, several projects have followed including Radio Music Society (2012), a collection of hum worthy tunes that won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Album; Emily’s D+Evolution in 2016, an Afrofuturistic landscape of complex, groove-oriented compositions; and the unprecedented Exposure in 2017 that was created in just 77 hours while streamed on Facebook Live. Her latest release in 2018, 12 Little Spells, is a collection of songs composed using a form of alternative medicine called Reiki. Each song is dedicated to a specific body part. According to her website, Spalding wanted create a project that had healing properties.
Over the years, the four-time GRAMMY winner has popped up on other albums by other artists including Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady and most recently John Legend’s A Legendary Christmas.
Esperanza was also a favorite of President Obama and Michelle Obama and performed “Overjoyed” at the White House in 2009 as a tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2009.
Prince invited her to jam and she played on his BET Lifetime Achievement Award tribute and opened for him on tour in 2011.
Spalding continues to bend the narrative of the jazz genre so it doesn’t conform her or the music to a box.