Early Life and Education
Spalding says that where she grew up wasn't very nice and describes her neighborhood in Portland, Oregon as "ghetto" and "pretty scary." "In Oregon, I got into so much trouble, I was in the hospital - out with these stupid kids - and from that point on, I stopped doing stupid things. I was a fool," says Spalding. Spalding was raised by her mother, who had nearly become a touring singer as well. Spalding says her mother is her role model and has been the biggest influence on her life. "She was very strong-willed, very independent," says Spalding. "She did a million things. She was a baker, a carpenter, she worked in foster care homes, she worked in food service, she worked with Cesar Chavez as a labor organizer. She was an amazing woman. She was hip enough to put a lot of negative things I saw as a child into some kind of context – even before I fully understood what she was saying."
Spalding had a lengthy illness when she was a child and as a result was home schooled during much of her elementary school years. When Spalding was four years old she saw classical cellist Yo Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and decided she wanted a life in music. "That was when I realized that I wanted to do something musical," Spalding says. "It was definitely the thing that hipped me to the whole idea of music as a creative pursuit." Her mother signed her up for music classes early; Spalding played the violin, oboe, and clarinet before picking up the bass in high school. "...The way my mom helped to shape my growth was that she would always let me play," says Spalding. "If I wanted to play music, she’d be all for it. She was extremely supportive of whatever music was coming out of me. She went to college briefly, because she wanted to play jazz guitar. Going with her to her class, I would sit under the piano. Then I would come home and I would be playing her stuff that her teacher had been playing. I was probably about eight."
By the time Spalding was five, she had taught herself to play the violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Spalding stayed with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon until she was fifteen and left as concertmaster. By then she had discovered the bass.
Spalding discovers the bass
Spalding started on violin but moved on to bass through a circuitous route. "My whole life, I wanted to play cello, and I sometimes thought that the violin was going to turn into the cello," says Spalding. "But it went too far and got stuck as the bass." Spalding had won a scholarship to a prestigious high school at 14 but didn't like the school and stayed there only a year. "It was horrible. I hated it, so I didn't ever go. It wasn't a good place for me," Spalding says. "But the good thing is that by the end I had picked up the bass." Spalding switched to the double bass in high school when "bored musically"; she picked up the instrument in her high school music classroom and immediately began improvising on it. Spalding says her first encounter with the bass was accidental. Spalding was goofing around in the band room, picked up a bass, and started to play. "At the same moment that I happened to pick it up the music teacher came in and says, 'Oh, you want to play bass?'" says Spalding. "We were both just kidding. But then he says, 'Here's a blues.' He taught me a bass line and I played it."
When asked why she chose to play the bass instead of the saxophone, violin, or some other instrument, Spalding says that the bass "had it’s own arc" and that she really didn't choose the instrument. "...It unfolded a path for me that I just kept following. I don’t know why or how, but my evolution on bass actually occurred quite naturally and un-expectedly," says Spalding. "What would I do with any other instrument? That is kind of how I feel. The bass and I just resonate." Spalding says that for her discovering the bass was like "waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker." After she discovered the instrument she would go to the band room every day and practice. "I was falling in love with it and didn’t even know," says Spalding.
Singing with Noise for Pretend
Spalding says she started writing lyrics for music at 15 for the local indie rock/pop group Noise for Pretend. "I started writing lyrics when I was about 15 or 16 for a group I sang and played in called Noise For Pretend," says Spalding. "The group would compose a song, and then say, 'Esperanza, can you write lyrics for this?' I had never done it before, so I just started thinking of sounds in words that would compliment the melody, and I would just write about any old subject. Cars, chalk, prostitutes, airplanes, anything." In addition to playing the bass, Spalding had some vocal training when she was younger. "I did take a couple of private lessons with a woman named Anne Peckham," says Spalding. "That really helped me learn how to prepare my voice for alot of singing, and how not to ruin the instrument. Outside of that, none worth mentioning. But, I have learned a lot from singing in the shower." Spalding began singing when she was with Noise for Pretend. "I would play simple bass lines and sing simple melodies," says Spalding. "Then I started getting into playing them more independently and more creatively. Often at home I’d be practicing tunes and singing the melodies to see how they all worked together. Through that process I started wanting to sing tunes live." Spalding says that it is a challenge to be both an instrumentalist and a vocalist simultaneously. "But what can be difficult is being a singer, in the sense that you are engaged with the audience, and really responsible for emoting, and getting into the lyrics, melody, etc and being an effective bassist/band leader," says Spalding.
Enrollment at Portland State University
Spalding left high school at 16 and after completing her GED enrolled at Portland State University. Spalding won a musical scholarship and enrolled in the music program. "I was definitely the youngest bass player in the program," Spalding says. "I was 16, and I had been playing the bass for about a year and a half. Most of the cats in the program had already had at least eight years of training under their belts, and I was trying to play in these orchestras and do these Bach cello suites. It wasn’t really flying, but if nothing else, my teachers were saying, 'Okay, she does have talent.'"
Enrollment at Berklee
After attending Portland State University, her Bass teacher convinced to apply to Berklee. Spalding was awarded a full scholarship after she "aced" her audition with Gary Burton and Pat Metheny. "Everybody had left the studio and I was there, probably practicing and Mr. Metheny walked in and asked me what I was planning to do with my life," says Spalding. "I told him that I was thinking of leaving school and pursuing a degree in political science. He told me that he meets a lot of musicians, some great, some not so great and that I had (what he called) the “X Factor.” Meaning, that if I chose to pursue a career in music and I applied myself, my potential was unlimited."
However even with a scholarship Spalding didn't have money for living expenses. "It got to be June. I didn't even have a plane ticket and I definitely didn't have an apartment," Spalding says. "A friend suggested a benefit concert. But I don't have a big ego like that, so I was like, no no no." Spalding's friends organized a benefit for her anyway and she headed off for Boston with $400 left after buying her plane ticket. "A friend let me use his gallery, and I paid him a rental fee out of the money I made from the concert," says Spalding. "All my friends and their bands played for free. I put that thing on to fly myself and my bass out and have a little money in my pocket to live on. I didn’t realize at the time how hip that was!"
Spalding was able to live rent free with some friends but she had to walk two miles to the train station every day carrying her bass. "By the end of the first semester I was so worn out from the commute and having no money, I just wanted to leave," says Spalding. "I remember many times being on the commuter rail and young kids my age, or even guys I thought were cute, looking at me and going, 'This woman is out of her mind!'" says Spalding.
Spalding began touring on the club circuit in Portland, Oregon as a teenager. Spalding got her first gig at 15 at a Portland blues club knowing only a single bass line. "Somehow I got this gig with a blues band," says Spalding. "I don't know how. I could play only the blues in F." After her first performance one of the musicians told her that the group was eager to replace their bassist and asked Spalding to rehearse with them "so she could actually learn something." The rehearsal with musicians like Sweet Baby James Benton turned into a weekly gig that lasted almost a year and provided Spalding with invaluable experience that fostered Spalding's rythmnic feel and interest in the bass. "There are a lot of great musicians in Portland that don’t have much to do but hang and teach and be phenomenal resources," says Spalding. "I was good enough to pass, and people may have thought I had potential that wasn’t being cultivated. I got lots of opportunities to play beyond my level, which is the best way to get better."
At Berklee Spalding began playing with Joe Lovano and eventually toured with him. "I was in his nonet ensemble at Berklee," says Spalding. "He had a trio gig, and my teacher, John Lockwood, couldn’t make it. At first it was Francisco Mela and him, just a trio with me. Then there was a quartet with a piano player, James Weidman, for a few years. Last year he started touring with US5, a quintet with two drummers. We played the Vanguard [in New York] and did a little mini-tour in California."
At the end of Spalding's first semester at Berklee, Spalding was hired by Patti Austin to tour with her on a gig that took her to Italy supporting on Austin on the For Ella tour celebrating the music of Ella Fitzgerald. "I learned what touring was," says Spalding. "You can think it’s this fun and amazing thing. But you learn how it really works—how to be on your game every night no matter what. I learned how to play the same music night after night and keep it fresh and interesting. I learned how to accompany a singer, which is very important. Along with the standard American songbook, we were playing a lot of bebop."
Spalding has toured in collaboration with other musicians including her former Berklee teacher Joe Lovano and mentor Pat Metheny. After her tour with Lovano and Metheny, Spalding released her first album, Junjo, in 2006 and her second, Esperanza, in 2008.
Almost immediately after graduation from college, Spalding was hired by Berklee College of Music, becoming one of the youngest professors in the institution's history. In May 2008 Spalding reported that she is developing two courses at Berklee: one on singing and playing, and another on transcribing as a tool for learning harmony and theory. Spalding says she helps her students by organizing the way that they are going to practice. "A lot of my students are overwhelmed by what they have to do in a week," says Spalding. "I have them keep a practice journal so they can keep track of what they’ve done, and what they need to do the next time they pick up the instrument. They can see where they left off and see what they have to do next. When you do it in that kind of focused way, you learn a lot about your strengths. At home in your room, you refine what you can do."
Spalding has recorded two albums Esperanza and Junjo. Spalding says that her objective with her first album Junjo was to showcase her trio. "So, all of the music was catered to the musicians, and the dynamic that existed between us," says Spalding. "Junjo was like a collaborative effort; I put my name on it and toured under my name," says Spalding. "But right away I realized that the tunes I had in mind to do at first weren’t working with those guys."
Spalding says that her second album Esperanza is an attempt to capture her sound both as a musician and as a band leader. "I chose musicians that would best bring out all of the colors necessary to effectively what I am going for musically right now," says Spalding. "And, I feel like Esperanza is a portrait of myself and my approach." Ed Morales wrote in Pop Matters on June 23, 2008 that Esperanza is "a sprawling collage of jazz fusion, Brazilian and even a touch of hip-hop." Siddhartha Mitter wrote in the Boston Globe in May 23, 2008 that the big change in Esperanza was her singing. "This makes "Esperanza Spalding" a much more accessible album, and in some ways more conventional," writes Mitter. "Inevitably, the singing creeps to the front of the music, and with it the lyrical content, which drifts toward themes of personal affirmation and hopefulness for social change that are pleasant enough but don't fully match the elegance of their delivery."
Spalding has collaborated with Fourplay, Stanley Clarke, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison, Joe Lovano, Nino Josele, Nando Michelin, and Theresa Perez. "Most people know me as a bass player for various other people," said Spalding in June 2008.
In 2005, Spalding became the youngest member of the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Spalding is the 2005 recipient of the Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding musicianship.
When Spadling appeared on the Dave Letterman show in June, 2007, Letterman's band leader, Paul Schaeffer, said Spalding was the "the coolest guest we’ve ever had."
Praise and Criticism
Gary Burton, Executive Vice President at Berklee, said in 2004 that Spalding had "a great time feel, she can confidently read the most complicated compositions, and she communicates her upbeat personality in everything she plays. She is definitely headed for a great career, and it will be soon." Pat Methany says that "I recognized right away that she had a lot to say and was also unlike any musician I had ever run across before. Her unique quality is something that goes beyond her pretty amazing musical skills; She has that rare 'x' factor of being able to transmit a certain personal kind of vision and energy that is all her own."
Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times on July 9, 2006 that Spaldings voice is "light and high, up in Blossom Dearie's pitch range, and she can sing quietly, almost in a daydream" and that Spalding "invents her own feminine space, a different sound from top to bottom."
Ratliff wrote in the New York Times on May 26, 2008 that one of Spalding's central gifts is "a light, fizzy, optimistic drive that's in her melodic bass playing and her elastic, small-voiced singing" but that the music by her group, "Esperanza" is missing "a crucial measure of modesty." "This is mostly acoustic music played by jazz musicians and owes as much to Stevie Wonder as Wayne Shorter," writes Ratliff. "It's an attempt at bringing this crisscrossing to a new level of definition and power, but its vamps and grooves are a little obvious, and it pushes her first as a singer-songwriter, which isn't her primary strength."
Andrés Quinteros wrote in 26Noticias on Octboer 28, 2008 that Spalding's appearance Buenos Aires, Argentina demonstrated that Spalding is one of the greatest new talents on the jazz scene today. "Dueña de una gran capacidad y virtuosismo la ascendente novata presentó su primer trabajo “Esperanza” proclamando su inspirado arte en una noche de muchos colores tímbricos," wrote Quinteros.
Influences and attitude towards music and jazz
Spalding cites jazz bassists Ron Carter and Dave Holland as important influences on her music; Carter for the "orchestration" of his playing and Holland for the way his compositional method complements his personal style. She has described the saxophone player Wayne Shorter as "one of my musical heroes". She has also noted her preference for the music of Brazil, a factor that has come across in her recordings.
Spalding says she loves Fusion music. "There was this wonderful arc that started 40 years ago where people kept incorporating modern sounds into their music," says Spalding. "What you hear is a natural outgrowth of what I was exposed to." Spalding says that although she plays jazz, she thinks jazz has lost its street value and that hip-hop or Neo-Soul play a similar role today that jazz played in its more popular days. "[Jazz] is no longer the popular music of the type of people it grew out of," says Spalding. "I mean jazz, I think in its most popular days, was the music of young people who considered themselves awfully hip. And shoot, before that, it was just the popular dance music. So now, unless I want to go into hip-hop, or Neo-Soul, which is our 'jazz' now as far as the role these genres play in the music genre lineage, I have to be prepared for the seasoned 'art' community everywhere I go. It seems to me that is what jazz is becoming. I mean anytime you can go to a school and receive a BA or MA in some form of expression, you know it's lost its street value."
Spalding says that jazz no longer reaches today's black community. "[Look] at people like Erykah Badu, and the Roots. They are creating live music that speaks from the Black experience to the Black Diaspora and beyond, and no-one would question the Black community's support for them," says Spalding. "That's how it ought to be because they are making the jazz of our day. Suddenly, jazz has become like this grown arrogant adult, that is entitled to the respect and inheritance of it's conceivers, and I personally don't know how righteous that is."
Spalding is adamant on being judged by the quality of her work and not on her gender. "The tricky part is taking responsibility for your self. It’s really easy to say, 'Everybody treats me like a woman!' and it’s true, however many women make the mistake of over sexualizing themselves," says Spalding. "The hard thing, in the beginning, is to learn how to present your self in a totally professional way so that you're not inviting any of that. There's a way to behave where you are not over sexualizing yourself as a woman, but it's hard to learn because in most situation it's to your benefit."
Spalding does not want to be categorized as a genre artist. "I guess you have to be in some genre because people have to have words to describe you," Spalding says. "And that’s fine, as long as I’m not the one who has to decide which genre I’m in. I’d like it to be popular music, the kind they put in the display in front of the record store with Beyonce and Fiona Apple." "I want to get people excited even if they don’t know me or anything about jazz,” Spalding says. "I’d love to sit in with people like Herbie Hancock or Pat Metheny, but I would love to collaborate with Questlove of the Roots or Andre 3000."
Spalding says that everyone should read and should think more than they read. "Like Sam Cooke said, 'If you don’t read history and you don’t know what’s going on in the world what are you going to put in your music?' Because your stuff probably isn’t as hip as you think it is," says Spalding. "You have to know what’s going on!" Spalding says she still has a lot of learn. "I'm trying to do an art form that takes decades to [master]," says Spalding. When asked whose career she would like to model herself after, Spalding says "maybe a cross between Madonna and Ornette Coleman." "The beautiful thing about someone like Miles or Ornette or Madonna is that they never have to prove anything because they just are," says Spalding. "They know the value of the work that they do."
Spalding is very modest about her accomplishments and said it was an accident that she started playing the bass and a miracle that she ever got the Berklee. "You have to understand," Spalding says. "I'm here because somebody up in the heavens must love me or something."
Spalding says she has a diverse ethnic heritage that includes "Welsh, Hispanic, and Native American roots in addition to the un-identified roots from Africa." "I suppose invariably I draw from my cultural background," says Spalding. "But, it isn't intentional, just like my way of expressing myself in the way I speak and my body language comes from my ethnic background, because those various influences molded and shaped how I communicate with others." Spalding says she has Hispanic roots. "My mother was from Southern California and had some Hispanic background; my nanny was Cuban and I picked up a lot of Spanish from her."
Spalding does not consider herself a musical prodigy. "I am surrounded by prodigies everywhere I go, but because they are a little older than me, or not a female, or not on a major label, they are not acknowledged as such," says Spalding. "It feels in-appropriate to use that word to describe my musicianship, when there are so many people out there way deeper than me!"
Spalding speaks Portuguese and has spent time in Brazil. "I usually sing songs in their original language," says Spalding. "With Portuguese songs the phrasing of the melody is intrinsically linked with the language, and it’s beautiful."
As a leader
With Noise for Pretend
With Stanley Clarke
- 2007: The Toys of Men
With Nando Michelin Trio
With M. Ward
- 2003: Transfiguration of Vincent
- Jazz Magazine. "In Conversation with Esperanza Spalding" by Tomas Peña. May 28, 2008.
- Christian Science Monitor. "Jazz prodigy Esperanza Spalding, still eager to teach – and learn" by Stephen Humphries. May 30, 2008.
- Bass Player. "At Only 24, Jazz Phenom Esperanza Spalding Has The Ultimate ‘X-Factor’" by Philip Booth. May 8, 2008.
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- Jaz Review. "Esperanza Spalding: It's Natural" Interview by Cheryl K. Symister-Masterson. September 2006.
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- Esperanza Spalding Official Web Site. "Biography"
- Berklee College of Music. "Esperanza Spalding" by Sarah Murphy. April 2004.
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- Vibes. "Esperanza Spalding Interview" by Nu Soul. July 30, 2008.
- Amoeblog. "Amoeblog Interview with Esperanza Spalding" by Billyjam. June 27, 2008.
- New York Times. "Up to Her Ears: A Night Out with Esperanza Spalding" by Ellen Carpenter. July 27, 2007.
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- Pop Matters. "Esperanza Spalding's debut picks up where jazz fusion of the 1970s left off" by Ed Morales. June 23, 2008.
- Boston Globe. "Making a statement: Bassist Spalding adds lyrics to her many jazz talents" by Siddhartha Mitter. May 23, 2008.
- New York Times. "Suite for Gas Pump and Coffin Lid" by Ben Ratliff. July 9, 2006.
- New York Times. "Critics' Choice; That Ladies' Man With Some New Lines" by Ben Ratliff. May 26, 2008.
- 26Noticias. "Esperanza Spalding y su jazz en Buenos Aires" by Andrés Quinteros. October 28, 2008.
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- Official website
- "In Conversation with Esperanza Spalding" by Tomas Peña (Jazz.com)