Beyond the Status Quo
- The highly distinguished musician, Esperanza Spalding does more than just make music—she’s trying to change the world.
- Lee Child left his former life behind to author an unlikely hero: Jack Reacher, a vagrant vigilante who reaps justice for the underdog. Over the course of the past two decades, Child and Reacher have sold millions of books worldwide.
- The award-winning tenor, Nicholas Phan explores the world in song, merging cultures while uncovering immense value in all of our differences.
Esperanza Spalding is an admired jazz bassist, singer, and songwriter. She has won four Grammy Awards from seven nominations.
Born in Portland, OR, in 1984, she began playing violin at age 5. She entered Portland State University at age 16 to study bass. She graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston at age 20 and was almost immediately hired as an instructor.
Spalding is known for her sophisticated songwriting that fuses jazz, hip hop, and global musical traditions. She released Junjo, her first of seven albums, in 2006. In 2009, she was invited by President Obama to perform at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Stockholm. She received the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist, beating out pop stars Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence + the Machine, and Mumford & Sons. Her fourth record, Radio Music Society (2012) reached the top 10 of the Billboard album charts and won two Grammy Awards. She won her fourth Grammy in 2020 for the album 12 Little Spells.
Spalding is a professor of music at Harvard University.
Lee Child (the pen name of James Dover Grant) is a bestselling novelist known for his series of books featuring hero Jack Reacher. Two of these novels have been adapted into films starring Tom Cruise.
Born in Coventry, England, he studied law at the University of Sheffield, then spent nearly twenty years as a presentation director for British TV network Granada Television. He published his first novel, Killing Floor, in 1997, two years after losing his job in a corporate restructuring. The book introduced the character of Jack Reacher, a former major in the U.S. Army military police who wanders the country on missions of vigilante justice. One Shot (2005) and Never Go Back (2013) were turned into the blockbuster movies Jack Reacher (2012) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016). A television series is in development.
In 2020, after twenty-five thrillers that sold over 100 million copies, Child began co-writing the Reacher books with his brother, crime novelist Andrew Grant, who will eventually take over the series.
Nicholas Phan is an internationally celebrated lyric tenor who has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras and operas. He has received three Grammy nominations.
Phan was raised in Ann Arbor, MI, by a Greek American mother and a Chinese-Indonesian father. Known as a preeminent singer of opera and vocal chamber music, he has performed with the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra, among others, and toured the major concert halls of Europe and North America. He has released five solo recordings. His two albums of Benjamin Britten songs established Phan as a leading interpreter of the British composer. His compilations Gods & Monsters (2017) and Clairières: Songs by Lili & Nadia Boulanger (2020) were nominated for Grammy Awards.
In 2010 he co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago to promote art song and vocal chamber music. He serves as artistic director of that organization and teaches music at DePaul University.
Welcome to “Articulate,” the show that helps us explain who we are to ourselves and to others. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “Beyond the Status Quo,” the highly distinguished musician Esperanza Spalding does more than just make music. She’s trying to change the world.
Esperanza Spalding:I think stepping into the work of engaging and activism as this sort of big umbrella term, which hopefully means acting on your impulse to serve and to help, to not just be angry ’cause stuff’s messed up.
Lee Child left his former life behind to author an unlikely hero, Jack Reacher, a vagrant vigilante who reaps justice for the underdog. Over the course of the past two decades, Child and Reacher have sold millions of books worldwide.
Lee Child: There’s a passage in one of the books where Reacher says, “Well, you know, I just wanna look after the little guy.” And the friend’s skeptical, says, “Really? “You care about the little guy?” And Reacher says, “Eh, not really, I just hate the big guy.”
And the award-winning tenor Nicholas Phan explores the world is song, merging cultures while uncovering immense value in all of our differences.
Nicholas Phan: Ultimately, I think the greatest naivete about it is this idea that anybody is just one thing.
That’s all ahead on “Articulate.”
Esperanza Spalding’s life in music has been dense with accomplishment. She picked up the violin at age five, led an orchestra at 15, and was teaching at her alma mater, the Berklee School of Music, by 20. Now in her mid-30s, she’s released seven albums, won three Grammys, teaches at Harvard, and has been a longtime activist for the likes of the Innocence Project, The Trust for Public Land, and Bienestar, a nonprofit that builds low-income housing. But at the outset, “There was no ambition,” she says, “only a deeply felt compulsion.”
Esperanza Spalding: Playing music and coming up with songs and practicing just felt better than everything else. That’s why I kept at it, and when you’re young, and you find something you’re good at, you, of course, are drawn to it. It’s such a surprise to discover that you have an ability that sets you apart from other people, anyway, in some way.
Spalding has continued to set herself apart in lots of ways, since. Her name, Esperanza, means hope in Spanish, and after the release of her eponymous 2008 album, the wordplay was irresistible. But it went too far, to the point that in some circles, she was held up not just as a new hope, but as the Savior of Jazz. And so pervasive was this sentiment that it was even expressed in the Obama White House. Pressure mounted in 2011, when she beat out a host of mainstream pop stars to win the Grammy for best new artist. But when Esperanza Spalding’s mother named her, it was more a wish than a declaration.
Spalding: She was in a moment of severe crisis. It was a horrible time in her life, and she was barely surviving, had my big brother, and found out she was pregnant, and my father had just been arrested, and he wasn’t gonna come back, and she didn’t want him to come back, and it was like total chaos. And she was like, “Okay, I don’t know if this is a boy or a girl, but whoever they are, this is gonna be a turning point in my life.”
AJC: Worked out okay for her, I think.
Spalding: Yeah, I was a pretty wild child, but yeah, I think it was, not just my birth, but you know, we always have that power, I think, in some ways to decide, like “Okay, time for a change.” And her pregnancy with me was that catalyst.
Spalding was not content to be branded as a jazz artist for long. The label, she says, was not fair to her or to jazz.
Spalding: It’s really sensational, but certain entities around me stood to benefit from me doing well within a field that didn’t have a lot of people who looked like me in it. And my love for the music, also, I wanna be at a festival with all these mofos, of course. So I wasn’t gonna be like, “No, don’t book me at North Sea.” It took a while to kind of catch up to the disparity, though. I felt like—you know, the truth is, I’m not thinking about or pursuing a jazz aesthetic, whatever that means anymore, in the music, and actually, I don’t want what I’m doing to be held up as the canon of this music, ’cause that’s not fair to the real canon of the music.
Spalding’s 2018 project was one of her most adventurous yet. Each track on 12 Little Spells was created to evoke sensations in specific regions of the body. But whether or not the spells actually work is academic to Esperanza Spalding.
Spalding: Whatever happens, it’s good music, you know? That’s how I feel. I will pursue, explicitly, a degree that’s grounded in the psychology and the neurobiology of healing through the lens of music therapy. So I sort of see this as my freebie, you know? This is where I get to explore those themes without the burden of a degree that says, you have to back it up with the scientific data. So this was a place to explore these themes basically through intuition and experience, which is what artists are always doing. So this is my freebie to just use that mode of inquiry to create these spells. And tracking them myself, in my own body, and tracking it with the co-creators of the videos, of the show, musicians in the studio. We would sometimes when we were working on an arrangement, refer back to the intended effect of the spell, and how I had written, I had written it to have that effect, and we would use that to inform how we did the arrangement.
Though Esperanza Spalding has been willing to indulge her instincts, she also believes in rigorous study. One of the courses she teaches at Harvard, Applied Music Activism, requires students to methodically evaluate their efforts to propagate social change, something she wishes she had been forced to do a long time ago.
Spalding: Nobody else held me accountable to show that what I was doing was actually moving a needle on anything, and I didn’t really even know how to do it. And I would get involved in other people’s campaigns and sometimes feel like, is this just to make us feel better? Is this to just make us, us 35 people in this house in Hillsboro, Oregon, who believe in the ACLU, feel better like we’ve done something today? And if so, that’s not enough. So really, what we’re talking about is the practice of holding ourselves accountable and doing the work to design a campaign that we can track. I think stepping into the work of engaging and activism as this sort of big umbrella term, which hopefully means acting on your impulse to serve and to help, to not just be angry ’cause stuff’s messed up. Within that, can we develop a practice whereby every time we engage, we’re bringing with it a certain set of standards?
And so, Esperanza Spalding continues to offer new, often surprising perspectives, each project undertaken with curious optimism, with hope.
For more than 20 years, millions of fans, readers, moviegoers, even music lovers, have followed the adventures of Jack Reacher, a former U.S. military cop turned vagabond, a latter-day Robin Hood, who hopes for the best, plans for the worst, and always helps out the underdog.
Lee Child: I’m more critical of him than you would expect. I dislike him more than you would expect.
Jack Reacher is a maverick, tied to no place, person, or profession. But when the British author Lee Child created this all-American hero, his own life was in turmoil. In 1995, in a flurry of corporate restructuring, Child lost what he had thought to be a job for life as a mid-level manager and union organizer at Granada, the TV network in the northwest of England, where he’d worked for almost two decades. Prospects in his field were bleak, so a 40-year-old Child decided to try something new, writing a hit crime thriller series.
Child: It was about forging forward and saying, I’ve done the good corporate thing. I’ve been a loyal employee, it got me absolutely nowhere, and now I’m gonna work for myself, I’m gonna do it my way.
AJC: Were you always fighting the Man, then? Jack is clearly not a big fan of the Man.
AJC: You were a union shop steward protecting people from the Man.
Child:I hate the Man, and there’s a passage in one of the Reacher books where his friend says, “You know, you could have been anything. Why did you become a military cop? You coulda been Delta Force, you coulda been Armored Division, you coulda done whatever you wanted!” And Reacher says, “Well, you know, I just wanna look after the little guy.” And the friend, skeptical, says, “Really? You care about the little guy?” And Reacher says, “Eh, not really, I just hate the big guy.” And that’s very much me, that I hate it when bullies, people taking advantage of their situation, just cruel and heartless type of behavior, that really gets to me. So in a sense, yeah, the entire Reacher series is about stickin’ it to the Man.
And Lee Child and Jack Reacher have been sticking it to the Man for more than 20 years. And with over two dozen novels, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide, Child and Reacher still begin a new adventure together on September 1st of every year. Following two hit films starring Tom Cruise, Child is now developing a Reacher TV series for Amazon. Who will play Reacher is yet to be confirmed, but other creations in the Reacher universe have come to life far more quickly, like the 2018 10-song album, Just the Clothes on My Back. It took just two sessions for Child and his friends, Jennifer Ferguson and Scott Smith of the band Naked Blue to pen an entire record inspired by their hero.
Scott Smith: That’s a very daunting task, we thought, because it’s his baby, and we were like, “Can we do that, can you do that?” “Sure, I can do whatever I want!” Which was actually great, because we’ve been readers since the first book and are huge fans. So you feel like you know the character and the story and the style and all of that, so it made it actually easy to hone in on this one guy and his perspective.
Jennifer Ferguson: The three of us were very nervous, but I think Jack Reacher demands, you know, we all know him so well, and we just gave him what we thought he would want.
Wherever Jack Reacher goes, he avenges injustice, violently when necessary. But unlike other heroes, he has no tragic flaw. He’s not a broken man, he doesn’t need to be fixed.
Child: I don’t know, 30, 40 years ago, we had the introduction of the dysfunctional hero, the damaged guy—
AJC: And it’s become a trope now.
AJC: You can’t have one who’s not damaged!
Child: No, you know, they were alcoholics or recovering alcoholics, and then divorced recovering alcoholics whose teenage daughter hates them, and maybe they made a mistake, they were on a stakeout at night and they shot at a fleeing suspect and it turned out to be a 14-year-old boy, so they’re totally traumatized and they have to go and live in a hut in the woods. There was that terrible sense of misery. And I thought, well, nobody really wants to read about miserable people, so I wanted him to be free of all of that stuff. He has no flaws, no traumas in his past, no horrors to escape, none of that. The central tension in Reacher is that he loves his solitude, but he’s simultaneously worried about being lonely.
AJC: That’s the point, alone but not lonely!
Child: Yeah, and he suffers from that, I think, inasmuch as you wanna sort of have a psychological aspect to the character. He’s caught between two stools, and that is a tension that he may never resolve.
(Excerpt from Jack Reacher):
He liked to sit outside in the summer in New York City, especially at night. He liked the electric darkness and the hot, dirty air, and the blasts of noise and traffic, and the manic barking sirens and the crush of people. It helped the lonely man feel connected, and isolated, both at the same time.
In a world of thugs, Reacher is a straightforward, benevolent cowboy, an avenging hero we can root for.
Child: When I was little, I loved David versus Goliath, which is the ultimate paradigm for a conflict story. We’ve lived with it forever. But I liked Goliath better, you know. I wanted Goliath to be the good guy, I wanted Goliath to win! And so I just, when I came to writing the series, I thought, “All right, can we have Goliath as the good guy, can we have the good guy utterly physically unchallengeable?” And again, I think that works as a consolation for people, because in real life, we’re not, you know? In real life, we’re always just a little nervous about something or other.
AJC: Has he ever lost a fight? I’m trying to think.
AJC: He’s temporarily lost.
Child: He’s had his nose broken and he once had a headache, but basically, yeah, this is a paradigm that this guy will not be beat. And that ought to be a short-circuit dramatically, but people love it. The drama comes from solving the mystery or sorting out the situation, but yeah, Reacher is a knight errant, in that old-fashioned sense. I mean, you mentioned cowboys, and most of the people say, yeah, Reacher is this Western figure, which of course, he is in a sense, but that figure was not invented by the Westerns.
AJC: No, true.
Child: It was imported from medieval Europe when medieval Europe was scary and there was a frontier feel. Then later, of course, Europe became more settled and civilized, so that character was literally forced out, to where there was still a frontier, which was either Australia, lots of similar legends there, or America, of course, in the West.
AJC: The classic avenging hero, then.
Child: Yeah, and universal in world culture, actually. There’s a Japanese trope, the ronin, who is the samurai disowned by his master and sentenced to wander the land doing good deeds. This trope has been around for thousands of years, because we want it, you know? If you’re in trouble somewhere, sometime, you would love it if some guy would show up, solve your problem, and then, crucially, leave. Because it’s the transience that’s really important to that myth. They can’t stick around. The only time, in legend or myth, any one of them has ever stuck around was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He stuck around because he didn’t get paid. And then he killed all the children by marching them off a cliff. It’s a nightmare if they stick around! So the idea is, they show up, they solve the problem, they leave, and that has been happening for thousands of years. So it is permanent in our culture.
And Jack Reacher, it seems, is here to stay. The cultural icon, guardian of the little guy, enemy of the big Man, always on the road to his next great adventure.
When the philosopher and historian Hans Kohn recorded this rosy sentiment in his 1944 book, The Idea of Nationalism, two world wars had already proven that conflating one’s birthplace with one’s identity was a powerfully double-edged sword. After the Great War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, national borders throughout Europe were redrawn along more culturally cohesive lines, thus giving smaller ethnic groups greater autonomy over their own affairs.
Nicholas Phan: Inherent in freedom is chaos, and inherent in defining oneself, one has to define the Other. Ultimately, I think the greatest naivete about it is this idea that anybody is just one thing.
The internationally celebrated lyric tenor Nicholas Phan has just completed an exploration of the role of the art song defining national identity. But even before this, he had already struggled to balance the different parts of his own identity. Phan grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1980s to a second-generation Greek-American mother and a father who was born in China. Both were deeply connected to their cultures of origin. As a result, the young Phan felt alienated from the place where he grew up. It all came to a head in 2003, when a 24-year-old Phan entered the BBC Singer of the World competition.
Phan: I always describe it to people as Miss Universe for voice and opera.
Competitors were asked to bring songs from their home countries. But while the other singers easily embraced this directive, Phan faltered.
Phan: I didn’t feel American enough. And I was afraid of appropriating something that wasn’t mine.
AJC: What did you end up singing, and what would you sing today, were the circumstances to be presented to you again?
Phan: What I ended up singing were some songs by John Musto that were settings of Langston Hughes’s poems. I think, in the end, I probably would’ve chosen “At the River” by Aaron Copland, but I did not have that courage, at that time.
A decade later, the question of who is entitled to what national identity came up for Phan once again. His first two albums were of music by the great 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten. Both were well-received, in part because of Phan’s outsider perspective.
Phan: The thing about the experience was, I thought, revelatory to me because it actually showed me that, oh, I can have that courage. But for some reason, because that was Other, that felt safe. I can have the same courage with my own music, with American music, and so, in this roundabout way, I feel that I have found my own courage to perform our music, by going through these European composers, and having the boldness to interpret their music, as well.
Today, Nicholas Phan is a bold explorer of far-ranging musical traditions. He believes that music should invite outsiders in, and act as a reminder of the things that we all share. His most recent project examined how music, specifically the art song, has been used as both a hammer and a mirror, forging and reflecting national identities across time. He looked first to France during its Belle Epoque. This was a golden age of prosperity, productivity, and peace that began in 1871 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War.
Phan: They are trying to define a French aesthetic in response to this Austro-German thing that dominates Europe at the time. And so you have this hotbed of intellectual and artistic activity happening, and out of it is born this French nationalist movement in art. And most specifically, in poetry and in music.
For the early part of the 1900s, creativity flourished, especially around Paris. But everything changed in 1914. The Great War devastated the entire nation. Hardly anyone survived without scars, physical or emotional. But from the rubble emerged some of the most remarkable works of culture of modern times. Phan sees this as a natural reaction to great loss.
Phan: It destroyed families. It’s a traumatic event, I think, on so many levels, and one of the ways we, as humans, try and grapple with such large concepts, is through art. It’s how we come together, it’s how we express our emotions.
AJC: And how we feel, collectively.
Without borders, Nicholas Phan explores the musical territories that captivate him, and in doing so, reminds us of what we all share.