Esperanza Spalding’s Discipline(s)
The highly distinguished musician Esperanza Spalding does more than just make music—she’s trying to change the world.
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.
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.