All achievers

Esperanza Spalding

Jazz Phenomenon

Art is never over. And you're never over, because through your art you're continually reinventing yourself and regenerating yourself.

Composer, bass player and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, incandescent onstage and off. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Spalding)
Grammy Award-winning composer, bass player and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, incandescent onstage and off.

Esperanza Spalding was born in Portland, Oregon. Her parents separated when she was very young, and her mother raised Esperanza and her brother on her own in King, a Portland neighborhood that suffered from poverty and violence in the years when Esperanza was growing up. Despite the family’s limited resources, Esperanza’s mother encouraged free thinking and creative expression for her children and exposed them to a variety of cultural influences.

Esperanza fell in love with music at age four, after seeing the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Too small to hold the cello, she took up the violin. After a few violin lessons she was able to practice and study on her own. Her progress on her first instrument was extraordinary. The Portland community provided a number of opportunities for young people to participate in music ensembles and young Esperanza took advantage of them all. At age five she was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon.

Esperanza Spalding poses backstage with the award for best new artist at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
2011: Esperanza Spalding poses backstage with the award for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards. (AP Images)

Over the next ten years, she learned guitar with her mother, taught herself piano, and experimented with the clarinet and oboe. By 15, she was concertmaster (lead violinist) with the Chamber Music Society and ready to pursue her original dream of playing the cello. By chance, she picked up an upright bass instead and fell in love with the giant of the string family. Even larger than the cello, the bass is usually the chosen instrument of tall men with long arms and big hands. At five-foot-six, Esperanza Spalding compensated for her smaller stature with an outsize talent and unrelenting commitment to music. She also took up the electric bass, and began writing songs, singing and leading a band in Portland rock clubs.

Easily bored in school, Esperanza was home schooled for much of her childhood. At 16, she passed the GED (general educational development tests) and received her high school diploma. Barely a year after taking up her chosen instrument, she won admission to the music program at Portland State University. At Portland State, she absorbed as much of the jazz tradition as possible. With the encouragement of her instructors, she transferred after a year to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where she completed her undergraduate degree in only three years. She also found opportunities to play with topflight jazz artists in the Boston area, who were quick to recognize her explosive talent. By the time she graduated at age 20, she was supporting herself with her music and was asked to teach at Berklee. She was the youngest instructor in the school’s history.

Academy of Achievement youth delegate Esperanza Spalding mesmerizes the audience at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco with her expressive singing and inventive bass playing.
American Academy of Achievement youth delegate Esperanza Spalding mesmerizes the audience at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco with her expressive singing and inventive bass playing.

Spalding toured and played with a host of well-known artists, including Joe Lovano, Patti Austin, Michel Camilo, Charlie Haden, Regina Carter, Pat Metheny, Dave Samuels, and many others, while heading her own jazz trio.

In 2006, Spalding recorded and released her first CD, Junjo. She followed it in 2008 with Esperanza, which displayed her expanding range as a composer, fusing straight-ahead jazz with soul and hip-hop sounds and the rich musical traditions of Cuba and Brazil. Spalding was not only playing acoustic and electric bass with imagination and an authority far beyond her years, she was also singing with grace and conviction in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

On the strength of its enthusiastic reviews in the jazz press, Esperanza flew to the top of Billboard magazine’s contemporary jazz chart and remained on the list for over 70 weeks. Strong international sales helped it become the bestselling album by a new jazz artist in many years.

Esperanza Spalding performs in the East Room of the White House on October 14, 2015. The President and Mrs. Obama are seated in the front row. (Photo by Wayne R. Reynolds)
Esperanza Spalding performs in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on October 14, 2015.

In 2009, Esperanza Spalding was invited by President Barack Obama to perform at the White House and in Stockholm, Sweden, at the ceremony where the President received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Spalding followed the success of Esperanza with Chamber Music Society in August of 2010. The CD included eight of her original compositions as well as American and Brazilian standards. It was performed by Spalding’s quartet, a string trio and guest vocalists including the Brazilian star Milton Nascimento. The album reached number one on Billboard‘s Contemporary Jazz chart, and Spalding received the 2011 Grammy Award for Best New Artist. In the half-century since the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences created the Grammy Award, Spalding was the first jazz musician to receive the New Artist award.

Esperanza Spalding meets Golden Plate Awards Council member Oprah Winfrey at the American Academy of Achievement's 2014 event in Beverly Hills honoring Sidney Poitier. (© Academy of Achievement)
Esperanza Spalding meets Golden Plate Awards Council member Oprah Winfrey at the American Academy of Achievement’s 2014 dinner ceremony in Beverly Hills, California honoring the legendary actor Sidney Poitier.

On the even more ambitious follow-up, Radio Music Society (2012), she played her own compositions alongside an eclectic selection of tunes by everyone from the Beach Boys to one of her heroes, jazz great Wayne Shorter. The personnel included her regular rhythm section — drummer Terry Lynne Carrington and pianist Leo Genovese — as well as longtime mentor Joe Lovano on saxophone, master drummer Jack DeJohnette and guest vocalists.

In the years since the release of Radio Music Society, she has collaborated with many of her musical heroes, not least saxophone legend Wayne Shorter, one of the founding fathers of the fusion movement in jazz. In 2016, Spalding produced Emily’s D+Evolution, which pushed her melodic approach to jazz toward rock and funk, and earned her many accolades including recognition as one of the Best Albums of the Year. Today, Esperanza Spalding tours the world with an expanded ensemble like those she gathered in her Chamber Music and Radio Music recordings, combining the traditional and the experimental while exploring an ever-expanding universe of global music.

In September 2017, Esperanza Spalding embarked on her most audacious project yet. Over one 77-hour period, she wrote, performed and recorded a new album, Exposure, live-streaming the entire process on Facebook.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2014

Vocalist, composer and instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding fell in love with music as a little girl in Portland, Oregon. She first drew acclaim as a child violinist before discovering the upright bass as a teenager. Within months she was playing in local clubs, exploring pop, rock, hip-hop and especially jazz.

By age 20 she was an instructor at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, and was performing with singer Patti Austin and a stellar roster of jazz greats. Her 2008 album, Esperanza, topped Billboard‘s Contemporary Jazz chart. The following year, she was invited to perform at the White House and the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Stockholm. At the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, she was honored as Best New Artist of the Year.

With her 2011 album, Chamber Music Society, she became the bestselling contemporary jazz artist in the world. On the follow-up, Radio Music Society, she played her own compositions alongside an eclectic selection of tunes by everyone from the Beach Boys to one of her heroes, jazz great Wayne Shorter. With every performance, every recording, she continues to explore an ever-expanding musical universe.

Watch full interview

Can you tell us about the Portland, Oregon of your youth?

Esperanza Spalding: It’s very different than what you see on Portlandia, even though I love Portlandia. My Portland was a very interesting mix of factors and universes actually.

I grew up in a very difficult neighborhood.  There was a lot of crime and a lot of addiction problems and just people who didn’t have a lot of options in life.  So my family grew up in that neighborhood. And somehow, at a really early age, I got connected to these music programs.  One of them was called the Culture Recreation Band, which was put together by these grown jazz musicians who had this idea that they could help kids in the neighborhood stay out of trouble if they could have a horn in their hand and be basically held accountable to show up every week at this place and know what they were supposed to know.  So these were mostly kids from my neighborhood, you know, from similar circumstances. On the other hand, I got involved in this program called the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, which was run by two incredible women, Hazel DeLorenzo and Dorothy McCormick, who really singlehandedly built this organization that provided free instruments and next-to-free classes, summer classes, and weekly orchestra rehearsal for children and older people and adults to keep alive the torch of chamber music, of live chamber music.  So that was my little world in music.  And wow, I of course couldn’t fathom how unique that environment was!  I couldn’t fathom how difficult it is for working adults to keep an organization like either of those alive and floating and thriving and actually accessible to the kids who need it most.  I mean, every kid needs and deserves access to music, but there really was no other option for a lot of the kids who were in this Culture Recreation Band.  And wow, that was a really amazing — now I realize — way to grow up.  And I got into music when I was five.  So I always was around this world of grownups making miraculous things happen, and thinking that was just normal.  And I guess because music is the thing that has remained the same since that time in my life, what I remember most from that time of my life in Portland are those individuals in these programs, teaching these programs, running these programs.

What was your first attraction to music? Do you remember being really struck by a musical experience?

Keys to success — Passion

Esperanza Spalding: The first musical experience that I really remember being struck by I actually hated, because it was bagpipes at the elementary school for some celebration. Now I appreciate bagpipes, but then, to my little vulnerable new virgin ears, the sound was like ahh! Just to be honest. That was my first musical experience that I remember being very impacted by. On the other hand, I remember hearing Yo-Yo Ma on television, on public television, and on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and I don’t think I had ever heard any sound like that before, not with the imagery, not with the visuals of this young-looking guy doing this thing that seemed just — I just didn’t have any reference for it. It just was like the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. And right then and there I decided I wanted to do — whatever that is — I want to do that. And what I don’t consciously remember, but now I know, is that in the same episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — it was apparently an episode all about music, music, music, music. So when they went to the next segment there was a woman playing acoustic bass, and the other female character was dressed as an acoustic bass. But I don’t remember seeing that as a kid, but I must have. So I thought, until I saw a rerun of that episode, that it was purely by chance I was so drawn to the bass, but maybe it was some sort of like subliminal seed that was planted. And those are the two seminal turning points in my life, seminal moments, being exposed to those two instruments.

Do you remember what Yo-Yo Ma was playing?

Esperanza Spalding: One of the Bach cello suites. I don’t remember which, but one of the J.S. Bach cello suites.

Academy Guest of Honor and jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter accompanies Esperanza Spalding in a duet performance at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco. (© Academy of Achievement)
Academy Guest of Honor and jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter accompanies Esperanza Spalding in a duet performance at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco. (© Academy of Achievement)

What music did you hear in the home? Was your mom musical?

Esperanza Spalding: Yeah. We had a Harry Belafonte Christmas album, and a Stevie Wonder Christmas album, and some Roland Hayes records, and I was allowed to listen to the classical station or the oldies station. I wasn’t interested in the jazz station, although I probably could listen to that. In my early years that was the music I remember hearing, asking my mom to keep out the Harry Belafonte and Stevie Wonder records way beyond and way before Christmas. The gospel sound I didn’t think I liked very much, but I did. I didn’t like church when I was a kid, and it reminded me of church, so “Oh, turn it off.” But I actually really loved Roland Hayes. We had a piano in the house that I would play all the time and write songs. I would steal songs from the radio and pretend like I wrote them. That was kind of the musical scene, you know.

Did your mom make up songs too?

Esperanza Spalding: My mom is very, very musical.  So, she would just make up these incidental — I guess you could say incidental music, but it was prominent so it wasn’t just incidental.  So, you know, maybe you — like you’d scratch yourself — “I have a scratch right here…” she’d be like, “Oh you don’t need to cry, ’cause your mama is by. Your mama who loves you and will never, ever leave you.”  And she’d just come up with these.  I remember that one.  In the morning there’d be a song.  And she just would kind of turn any phrase — everyone in my family tends to talk to ourselves a lot — so she would just turn like a little thing she was saying to herself into a song, and then somebody would catch it and be like — “You know you should stop…”  Very musical.  Very, very, very musical.  And completely hands-off in an interesting way around my musical obsessions.  So hands-on in terms of connecting me with great teachers and organizations that we could access, but then totally hands-off.  She didn’t like make me practice every day or anything. I don’t know what to say about that approach.  It’s really interesting, because she’s so musical and she loves music so much, and she had this dream of being a musician, but she didn’t impose it or make resistance to me exploring really anything, which is interesting.

I think the way our parents approach our passion affects greatly the way we approach our passion.  And I think the resistance can be a really powerful tool too.  On the other hand, I think when parents can be too much hands-on, it can be stifling, because it really — it’s like I think I’ve heard this expression that, “You can’t be taught anything.  You have to learn it yourself.”  Like people can guide you in the right direction and show you options, but only the individual can learn what it is to be learned.  And in music, that statement I think is profoundly true, because it really is your partner for life. I think, even at a young age, it’s really important to develop your own relationship to the study of music, to the practice, to the ingestion of this entity that will be what you live and breathe and love and hate and cry about and laugh about for the rest of your life.  So I feel really grateful that I was kind of allowed to develop my own special relationship to the art form and then, of course, be surrounded by good, great, and not-so-great teachers also.  It’s kind of interesting.