Esperanza Spalding may
have surprised the music world when she received a this year's Grammy
for Best New Artist, but the talented bassist, vocalist, composer and
bandleader is unpretentious about being the first jazz artist to win
the award. When I contacted her at home for a phone interview, I
found her fun and cute, but passionate and candid about jazz. Her
insights into jazz history demonstrate her deep respect for her
forebears, while her own work illustrates how she can keep it fresh
while remaining within the tradition.
NUVO: How has your
being the first jazz artist to receive the Grammy for Best New Artist
changed your career?
Esperanza Spalding: It
hasn't changed my life very much, but there is one thing I can say
about it. Even though it is exciting about the Grammy, there is no
"me" without all of the musicians, teachers, friends and
supporters who are equally important in terms of the music I make or
the career that I have. I hope there are positive repercussions for
the jazz community on the whole. I wish I could share that honor more
directly with all of the people from who I learned from.
NUVO: What jazz artist
inspired you to pick the bass as your instrument? And who inspired
you to sing with it?
Spalding: I always
liked Slam Stewart. I didn't think of being a vocalist when I
listened to him. I liked him as a bass player. I didn't think of
his singing and playing with his bass solos in Slim Gaillard's
group. I would go to a friend's house, and he would teach me songs.
To remember the chord progressions, I would sing the chord melody. It
became something I wanted to cultivate more and explore, and that's
how it started.
NUVO: You're an
instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, arranger and bandleader. Which
role is the most satisfying for you?
Spalding: Oh, they are
all part of one whole. I don't really differentiate. It's sort of
mixed up. It's the experience of them all that is really
NUVO: Are more female
instrumentalists such as yourself moving into jazz careers?
Spalding: The only
reason there aren't more are the special requirements of being a
professional traveling jazz musician that are challenging for someone
who is engaged in a more traditional role, as a mother at home with
kids or being a more domestic wife. Touring isn't really
compatible with that lifestyle. I think you will see that more women are seeing their
commitment to their music as a traveling, recording professional
artist in jazz. It relies so heavily on touring and being gone at
night. I think that has been the hindrance on women continuing their
NUVO: Do you think that
jazz has strayed from its roots?
Spalding: I think,
technically, the foundation is strong, and the roots of what has
become jazz are firmly in every branch in part of what has American
music and almost every form of popular music. If you wanted to get
literal about it, the answer is no. It hasn't strayed from its
roots. There are many ways of looking at it.
NUVO: You have said you
believe hip-hop and neo-soul are "our 'jazz' now as
far as the role these genres play in the music genre lineage."
Spalding: ...I would
say rap is the need for improvisation in rhythm and time. It shows
how you can create your own time and shows how you can use the
vocabulary to create you own swing. That to me is a really a
distinctive characteristic of jazz. To me freestyling is really an
outcropping of jazz.