@ the Royal Festival Hall
14 November 2012
Click an image to enlarge.
Esperanza Spalding was born in 1984 and raised on what she calls
“the other side of the tracks” in a multi-lingual
household and neighbourhood in Portland, Oregon. Growing up in a
single-parent home amid economically adverse circumstances, she
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. In the end, she never quite adjusted
to learning by rote in the conventional school setting.
“It was just hard for me to fit into a setting where
I was expected to sit in a room and swallow everything that was
being fed to me,” she recalls. “Once I figured out what
it was like to be home-schooled and basically self-taught, I couldn’t
fit back into the traditional environment.”
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’ Neighbourhood,
the roadmap was suddenly very clear. “That was when I
realised 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.
“The funny thing was, I was the songwriter, but I had
never experienced love before. Being the lyricist and the lead singer,
I was making up songs about red wagons, toys and other childish
interests. No one knew what I was singing about, but they liked
the sound of it and they just ate it up.”
At 16, 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, but if nothing else, my teachers were saying, ‘Okay,
she does have talent.’”
Berklee College of Music was the place where the pieces all came
together and doors started opening. After a move to the opposite
coast and three years of accelerated study, she not only earned
a B.M., but also signed on as an instructor in 2005 at the age of
20 – an appointment that has made her the youngest faculty
member in the history of the college. She was the 2005 recipient
of the prestigious Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding
In addition to the studying and the teaching, the Berklee years
also created a host of networking opportunities. Spalding had the
chance to work with several notable artists, including pianist Michel
Camilo, vibraphonist Dave Samuels, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist
Pat Metheny, singer Patti Austin, and saxophonists Donald Harrison
and Joe Lovano. “Working with Joe was terrifying,”
she recalls, “but he’s a really generous person.
I don’t know if I was ready for the gig or not, but he had
a lot of faith in me. It was an amazing learning experience.”
Spalding’s journey as a solo artist began with the May 2008
release of “Esperanza”, her debut recording for Heads
Up International, a division of Concord Music Group, which went
on to become the best selling album by a new jazz artist internationally
in 2008. The highly acclaimed release was the first opportunity
for a worldwide audience to witness her mesmerizing talents as an
instrumentalist, vocalist and composer.
Soon after release, “Esperanza” went straight to the
top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart where it remained
for over 70 weeks. Spalding was booked on the Late Show with David
Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live, the CBS Saturday Early Show, the Tavis
Smiley Show, Austin City Limits and National Public Radio. Other
highlights included two appearances at the White House, a Banana
Republic ad campaign, the Jazz Journalists Association’s 2009
Jazz Award for Up and Coming Artist of the Year, the 2009 JazzWeek
Award for Record of the Year, and many high profile tour dates,
including Central Park SummerStage in New York and the Newport Jazz
Festival. 2009 was capped by an invitation from President Obama
to perform at both the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Oslo, Norway –
where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded – and also at the Nobel
Peace Prize Concert.
In early 2010, Spalding was the subject of an in-depth profile
in The New Yorker, she was also featured in the May 2010 Anniversary
issue of O, The Oprah Magazine’s “Women on the Rise”
(in a fashion spread that features portraits of 10 women who are
making a difference in various careers), and she was again nominated
by the Jazz Journalists Association for their 2010 Jazz Award for
Up and Coming Artist of the Year.
On February 13th 2011 in Los Angeles, Spalding received one of
the music industry’s most prestigious prizes, the Grammy®
for Best New Artist. As Esperanza later said, she was surprised
and also grateful to receive this award. It had been a very special
day, as earlier on Spalding has co- hosted the pre-telecast with
Bobby McFerrin and also performed with the Grammy Jazz Ensemble.