If "esperanza" is the Spanish
word for hope, then bassist, vocalist and composer Esperanza
Spalding could not have been given a more fitting name at birth.
Blessed with uncanny instrumental chops, a multi-lingual voice
that is part angel and part siren, and a natural beauty that
borders on the hypnotic, the 23-year-old prodigy-turned-pro
might well be the hope for the future of jazz and instrumental
"She is an irresistible performer," says The
Seattle Times. "She sings and plays bass at the same
time and does a sort of interpretive dance as she playsâ¦Her
analysis of what's going on in jazz today is perceptive."
Irresistible. Interpretive. Perceptive. Such words are very
much at the core of Spalding's life story, but the story
is anything but typical. She was born in 1984 and raised on
what she calls "the other side of the tracks" in
a multi-lingual household and neighborhood 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 â her mother.
"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 â
even before I fully understood what she was saying."
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
"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'
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. "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 â an appointment that has made her the
youngest faculty member in the history of the college. She is
the 2005 recipient of the prestigious Boston Jazz Society scholarship
for outstanding musicianship.
In addition to the studying and the teaching, the Berklee years
have also created a host of networking opportunities. Since
her move to the East Coast, Spalding has worked 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."
The newest chapter of Spalding's journey begins with the
release of her forthcoming international debut recording for
Heads Up in May 2008. The album will be the first opportunity
for a worldwide audience to witness her mesmerizing talents
as an instrumentalist, vocalist and composer, but it's
just the start of what she hopes to achieve in a career where
the creative opportunities are almost limitless.
"I think there are some outside forces that have blessed
me with creative talents, and I don't want to disrespect
whatever plan the cosmos or the heavens or God or whoever might
have for me," she explains. "But based on what I
know about myself right now, what I really want to do is reach
people. I want to make great music, but I also want to use that
talent to lift people up, and maybe show them some degree of
hope where there might not be any in their lives. My name means
'hope' in Spanish, and it's a name I want
to live up to."