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Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding, a bassist/vocalist/composer, was one of the biggest breakout stars of 2011—not just in jazz, but in all genres of music. Her receipt of the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist was unprecedented—the first time a jazz musician had won the award. Her albums include Junjo, Esperanza, and Chamber Music Society. Spalding’s latest release, Radio Music Society, includes, among many others, jazz legends Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart; hip-hop giant Q-Tip; and Algebra Blessett, Lalah Hathaway, Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke among an array of notable vocalists.

 

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From the beginning of her life to her current success as a creative musician, Esperanza Spalding has charted her own course. The young bassist/vocalist/composer was one of the biggest breakout stars of 2011—not just in jazz, but in all genres of music. Her receipt of the 2011 GRAMMY® for Best New Artist was unprecedented—the first time a jazz musician had won the award— but Spalding continues to make the unprecedented the norm.

 

Born in Portland, Oregon, Spalding grew up in a single-parent home and learned early lessons in the meaning of perseverance and moral character from the role model whom she holds in the highest regard to this day – her mother.

 

But even with a rock-solid role model, school did not come easy to Spalding, although not for any lack of intellectual acumen. She was both blessed and cursed with a highly intuitive learning style that often put her at odds with the traditional education system. On top of that, she was shut in by a lengthy illness as a child, and as a result, was home-schooled for a significant portion of her elementary school years.

 

However, the one pursuit that made sense to Spalding from a very early age was music. At age four, after watching classical cellist Yo Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the roadmap was suddenly very clear. “That was when I realized that I wanted to do something musical,” she says. “It was definitely the thing that hipped me to the whole idea of music as a creative pursuit.”

 

Within a year, she had essentially taught herself to play the violin well enough to land a spot in The Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a community orchestra that was open to both children and adult musicians. She stayed with the group for ten years, and by age 15, she had been elevated to a concertmaster position.

 

But by then, she had also discovered the bass, and all of the non-classical avenues that the instrument could open for her. Suddenly, playing classical music in a community orchestra wasn’t enough for this young teenager anymore. Before long she was playing blues, funk, hip-hop and a variety of other styles on the local club circuit. Her first band, Noise for Pretend, expanded Spalding’s musical horizons and presented her earliest opportunities to sing and write music. 

 

She also came under the influence of several elders in Portland’s musical community, including Greg McKelvey, Ronnie Harrison, Geoff Lee, Warren Rand, Stan Bock, Ronnie Steen, Janice Scroggins, Dr. Thara Memory and many other teachers in the Cultural Recreation Band and Mel Brown’s Jazz Camp. 

 

At 15, Spalding left high school for good. Armed with her GED and aided by a generous scholarship, she enrolled in the music program at Portland State University. “I was definitely the youngest bass player in the program,” she 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 through the material, but if nothing else, my teachers were sayin