A History of Jazz

Surprise Best New Artist: Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding
Best New Artist Interview

When Esperanza Spalding graced the stage to receive her surprise trophy for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy awards, she was not the only one with her mouth agape. With shocked but gracious humility, she managed a “Thank you to the Academy for even nominating me,” as the crowd’s response was a hushed whisper “Who is Esperanza Spalding?”

The question has many answers: childhood prodigy, youngest faculty member at a prestigious university, brightest female jazz musician and bass player the world has ever seen…and the list goes on. However, to hear her talk, you would think Esperanza was just another ordinary girl with a gift and a dream.

Tough Beginnings
Like her predecessor Louis Armstrong, Esperanza Spalding’s childhood was less than ideal. She was raised in a single-parent household in a neighborhood rife with drugs and crime. It is not surprising that her school was a failing one and could not accommodate Esperanza’s unique learning style. Her mother, disgruntled with the teachers and school system in general, pulled her out and decided that she would home school her child.

Also a musician, Esperanza’s mother understood her daughter’s distinct method of learning and atypical intelligence in a way that her teachers never could. Her unwavering support and guidance solidified her place as Esperanza’s most influential and positive role model. Despite her early struggles with academic institutions, Esperanza Spalding would go on to study music on scholarship at Portland State University when she was only sixteen. From there, she secured a full scholarship to the Berkeley College of Music, and shortly after graduating, was asked to take a faculty position, making her the youngest instructor at the University, at the tender age of twenty.

Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding
Image taken from Wikipedia

A Childhood Dream
Esperanza is proof that a childhood dream should never be dismissed, no matter how far-fetched. The now accomplished and incredibly talented musician traces her musical inspiration back to, of all things, an episode of ‘Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’. When the then four-year old Esperanza saw the cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on the show, her love of music began to blossom, and she knew in her heart that a musical career was in her future.
For young Esperanza, music was a refuge and a comfort. She would often listen to her older brother’s discarded CDs, and her developing taste for music drew her to a mosaic of different artists and types of music from soul to pop and just about everything in between. Now, a Grammy-winning Jazz musician, Esperanza still reports being a fan of all kinds of music, and discerning listeners will no doubt detect a variety of influences in her artistry.

Even after her Grammy win, Esperanza is not exactly a household name, but after hearing her sing and play the bass, few could deny that she has both a natural and almost other-worldly talent. It is hard to know whether it is the fact that she sings in three languages (i.e. English, Spanish, and Portuguese), sports a rather graceful Afro, or that she is barely out of her teens, but there is something about Esperanza—something critics have called the “X factor”—that is undeniably mesmerizing.

A Vision for the Future
To date, Esperanza Spalding has produced three albums: Junjo in 2006, Esperanza in 2008, and her latest, Chamber Music Society in 2010. Critics have raved that as an artist, Esperanza continues to mature in her field, and surprise, leaving her fans to wonder just how much more amazing she can possibly become.

As the first jazz musician ever awarded the Best New Artist title, Esperanza believes that it is within her power to bring jazz into the mainstream. Beating out pop-star Justin Bieber (as well as Drake, Mumford & Sons, and Florence and the Machine) for the category award, she hopes that the world will sit up and take notice of what not only she, but her fellow jazz musicians, have to offer the world of music. Though she has no desire to be famous (oops!), she does hope that she can garner some recognition for what she calls her “camp” of artists who possess so much unrecognized talent.

Esperanza’s current project, an album titled Radio Music Society set to be released later this year, is an attempt to bring jazz music into the cars and homes of ordinary people. Though she says she is not sure it’s going to work, she is hoping to format the music on the album to make it more accessible and radio-friendly.

About the Author: Amy Townsend is a jazz enthusiast and content writer for www.historyjazz.com.