Last week at the Grammys, Esperanza Spalding rode in as the dark horse of the night, winning Best New Artist. (I will mention only one other female artist was nominated in this category: Florence and The Machine. Although women did have a pretty big take-home: 16 awards in all.) It had many people saying, “Who?” And it had me saying, “Wow, amazing dress!”
I had to research this woman with the amazing green dress who’d taken the Grammy Awards by surprise.
Esperanza is not exactly new. She released her first album in 2006, and she’s proved herself with praise from Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, performances at the White House and the 2010 BET Awards, and with performances with Herbie Hancock and Patti Labelle. She’s worked hard to get that Grammy, alright. Now think about it again: Justin Bieber was her main competitor.
Esperanza was a bit of a musical prodigy in a way, although she doesn’t consider herself one. She’d taught herself how to play the violin by the age of five, inspired by an episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood featuring cellist Yo Yo Ma. That landed her a spot in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a community orchestra, reaching concertmaster by fifteen.
By sixteen Esperanza dropped out of high school (she’d called it “easy and boring”) and started writing music for a rock band, Noise for Pretend. She’d become interested in the bass, was taking voice lessons by that time, and started singing for the band.
After getting her GED, Esperanza received a scholarship for a music program at Portland State University and received the honor of being the youngest bassist in the program. Although she was considered to have the “X-Factor” by one of her teachers, even receiving a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music, Esperanza actually considered changing majors to political science. Her professor convinced her otherwise, and Esperanza kept her major.
By the time she was twenty two, Esperanza released her first album, “Junjo” (2006), which showed a wide range of Esperanza’s abilities: not just bass, but scatting, vocals, composition, and re-invention of classics. But Esperanza preferred to consider it an album that catered to the musicians who created it and their very own dynamic, thus not technically considered her first album. While the mainstream tends to think of two styles when it comes to jazz: the overplayed, overdone restaurant jazz or a busy sort of free jazz, Esperanza showed that she could hold her own in creating a more subtle sort of free jazz. (She compares herself to a cross between Ornette Coleman and Madonna.)
Two years later came the self-titled “Esperanza,” which she considered to be a portrait of herself more than the previous collaborative effort. “Esperanza” became a best-selling album by a new jazz artist internationally in 2008 and flew to the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, staying there for 70 weeks. Again, Esperanza showed her wide range of talents and fused many different languages and styles together in her self-titled sensation.
Last year as the United States was drooling over the Biebers and GaGas, Esperanza Spalding was getting there, landing a gig on the BET Awards with Patti LaBelle, Alicia Keys, and Janelle MonÃ¡e. Esperanza began to wonder, “How I was going to take my music and make it accessible to the pop world? How am I going to turn this into like an Alicia Keys thing?” Ultimately Esperanza concluded, “I want to be the one deciding what my art means, how it’s presented, even if that means not becoming a pop superstar.”
Last summer Esperanza released “Chamber Music Society,” which Pop Matters called a “triumph”: “To be sure, this is a collection that asks a bit more of the listener. But it is not without foot-tapping pleasure.” Rolling Stone called her talent “undeniable,” and BBC admitted, “Her original compositions sound like standards already.”
Though not all of her reviews received glowing praise. Many reviewers before The Grammys seemed to take it as only a fair album. But The Recording Academy noticed something that no one else was picking up on: here is a woman who is truly doing something new with music, something inventive, and this shouldn’t be overlooked.
As Esperanza’s name was called, she clutched her chest in shock and walked to the stage, each person standing in ovation as she passed. Her hands shook as she held her award and graciously thanked her family and friends on camera, stumbling over the words. Her beautiful green dress stood out, tiers over tiers, the gradients blending into each other. She’d earned that thing damn it. And now she was going to show the world she was going to shine forever.