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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Unknown Best New Artist: Who is Esperanza Spalding?

By Rachel Lomot

Everyone in the audience was stunned when Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber for best new artist at the recent Grammy Awards. As an up-and-coming, immensely talented jazz bassist, among other things, it is only right that she won the award. The only problem is that mainstream music has not touched her, and a larger part of the audience watching the award show had no idea she even existed.  So, who is Esperanza Spalding?

Spalding is known for being a young and driven jazz artist.  She blends Brazilian and African-American influences into her music while still creating a contemporary sound.  With Spalding on acoustic or electric bass (sometimes violin) and singing in three different languages, it is outstanding to watch.  She usually surrounds herself with a jazz quartet, including a trumpet, drums, and another string instrument.

Born in Portland, Oregon in1984 she started from average beginnings.  Spalding switched from being home-schooled to attending public school a few times during her high school career.  At age fifteen, right after she returned to public school, she encountered her first acoustic bass and took it up easily.  An article in the Oregonian's A&E section posted on August 16, 2002 quotes Spalding, “I went in my high school band room one day and it was lying in the middle of the floor. And I just picked it up.”

It served her well, too, for Spalding received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston.  

However, she was only able to attend after many previous struggles.  Spalding was miserable in the public school system and quit high school before graduation.  She successfully completed her GED and went to a local university.  Still unhappy, she was convinced to apply to Berklee. 

Only after various benefit performances (which she reluctantly did) and much saving did she have enough to travel and afford the college.  To survive during college she played in various bands, including Blak Scienz Tribe, Trio Esperanza, the Midnight Seven, the PSU Saxtet, and Noise for Pretend. She's also played in the Rob Scheps 14-Piece Big Band, among other groups. 

Spalding continued to struggle, even at Berklee.  She claims, “By the end of the first semester I was so worn out from the commute and having no money, I just wanted to leave.”  Financial struggles coincided with the fact that she despised academics.  The pressure of always being perfect nearly made her quit.  However, Spalding was able to get through it and find success.  At twenty, she became the youngest faculty member at the prestigious school where she taught until 2008.

The Executive Vice President of Berklee College, Gary Burton, who is known to be one of the toughest critics, exclaims praise for Spalding; “She has 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.”
When listening to her music, like her song “Precious”, it is obvious why she won best new artist.  Recently she played at the White House and has been holding an increasing number of concerts where she holds the starring role.  At her current age of 26 she has accomplished more than most.  Spalding released an album last year entitled Chamber Music Society, which features drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Leo Genovese and a guest appearance by Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento. 

Before that she realeased two albums, Junjo and Esperanza featuring songs that stayed on the top of the chart of contemporary jazz for over 70 weeks.  She has been on tour with Prince and the online jazz magazine Downbeat featured her on its cover last year.  Now, to top it off, she has become the first jazz artist to win the award for best new artist in Grammy history.

Spalding wishes to do nothing more than bring acclaim to the current jazz artists.  In a recent interview for The Wall Street Journal she exclaims, “I hope people realize that there are a lot of things happening in the jazz world that they may not know about–and that I’m one of them.”

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