The day before last month’s Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Esperanza Spalding hosted “a celebration lunch” with friends to toast her nomination in the prestigious Best New Artist category.
“Nobody had even entertained the thought that I might actually receive the Grammy,” recalls Spalding, who was up against multiplatinum frontrunners Justin Bieber and Drake. “We were there for the thrill of thinking, ‘Wow, we were nominated. What the hell? It’s crazy!’ It just didn’t seem possible that I’d (win).”
But the 26-year-old jazz bassist, singer and composer did win — the first jazz artist ever to take that prize — shocking the crowd at the Staples Center, an international TV audience and a legion of Bieber fans who promptly attacked Spalding’s Wikipedia entry and assorted Web pages.
Even music executive Steve Stoute slammed her as an unworthy recipient in the category in a full-page New York Times ad complaining about the Grammys in general.
Spalding herself, meanwhile, was simply “as surprised as you can be ... thoroughly surprised.” But she also had to whisk off to Japan to play shows, which left her somewhat oblivious to the seismic reaction her win was causing back home.
She says the award hasn’t changed her daily life. Spalding says she did get “some really nice e-mails from folks I really admire,” including fellow jazzters Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny and Joe Lovano and singer-songwriter Paul Simon. “That was a nice perk, but realistically it doesn’t change very much of what I have to do, my work and my job. The last couple years I sort of had planned out. They were pretty full ... and none of that’s really going to change.
“So I don’t know. Some people recognize me now when I go to the coffee shop, I guess. I wish I could say something more exciting, but not much has changed.”
Spalding is, of course, pleased that she won one for the jazz “team.”
“It’s a tight-knit community that extends all over the world,” she says. “I’m really grateful that the joy can be shared and the honor can be shared by everybody.” And she’s quick to counter any contention that after 10 years and three albums of her own, she’s really not a “new” artist.
“Actually, it’s appropriate for jazz,” the Portland native explains. “It takes decades and decades and decades to really become great at this craft, and I’ve only been doing it for about a decade.
“So I would consider myself a new artist for all intents and purposes. I’m new to jazz and to arranging and writing and lyric-writing. All of it is new and there’s so much I want to do, and I intend to do it till the day I can’t breathe anymore. So right now, I am a new artist.”
The product of a Welsh, Hispanic, Native American and African-American lineage, Spalding got her music jones from her mother, who was a professional singer, as well as from watching cello great Yo Yo Ma perform on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when she was 4 years old.
Not long after that she taught herself to play violin and joined the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, ascending to concertmaster by the time she was a teenager. She also learned to play oboe and clarinet, then picked up the bass after receiving a scholarship from the Northwest Academy, a performing arts high school.
Spalding started writing lyrics as part of a local rock group Noise For Pretend, but studied jazz in earnest after completing a GED when she was 16 and enrolling first in Portland State University, then in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. After her first semester there, Spalding was hired by singer Patti Austin to be part of her “For Ella” tribute show to Ella Fitzgerald. Lovano, who was one of Spalding’s instructors at Berklee, also began using her in his touring band.
“There really are no solo artists in jazz,” says Spalding, who released her first album, “Junjo,” in 2006 and has also collaborated with Lovano, Stanley Clarke, Fourplay, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton and many others. She’s also worked as an instructor at Berklee.
“This music is all about community. You become a great musician thanks to the input and mentoring and records of everybody who’s around you. I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many great people.”
Spalding has no intention of slowing down, either. She’s still on the road to support her classically flavored third album, 2010’s “Chamber Music Society,” but during May she’ll be back in the studio to record its successor, “Radio Music Society,” which she describes as a “more upbeat and more sort of energetic” album that was conceived at the same time as “Chamber Music Society.”
“Originally I planned to release a double record, but that didn’t work. The two (approaches) really couldn’t be reconciled,” Spalding explains. “So it became two different records. I just decided I wanted to do ‘Chamber Music’ first and then focus on ‘Radio Music.’ ” The new album will combine original compositions with covers of songs by the Beach Boys and Wayne Shorter.
And Spalding has already lined up her next project after that: collaborating on an album with Milton Nascimento, the Brazilian guitarist with whom she’s recently “gotten closer to.”
“Oh, I love him. He’s phenomenal. He’s a beautiful human being,” says Spalding, “It’s really been a pleasure to get to know him. He’s one of those people who are as good-hearted and wonderful in person as what you get from their work.
“That’s another one of the blessings, you know? It’s another opportunity to learn and to share and create. That’s why we’re here. The awards, the sales, that comes after.”
Esperanza Spalding with the Chamber Music Society performs at 8 p.m. Friday, March 11, at the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $27, $37 and $72. Call 313-887-8500 or visit www.musichall.org.
Send your thoughts and comments to