June 1, 2015
THE JAZZ PRINCESS
Words: Victor Maldonado
Images: Josh Dehonney
Spalding grew up in the King neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, a neighborhood she has described as “ghetto” and “pretty scary” Her mother raised her and her brother as a single parent
Her father is African American and her mother is of Welsh, Native American, and Hispanic descent. Spalding has an interest in the music of other cultures, including that of Brazil, commenting: “With Portuguese songs, the phrasing of the melody is intrinsically linked with the language, and it’s beautiful.”
Spalding’s mother shares her interest in music, having nearly become a touring singer herself. But while Spalding cites her mother as a powerful influence who encouraged her musical expansion, she attributes her inspiration for pursuing a life in music to watching classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when she was four.
By the time Spalding was five, she had taught herself to play the violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Spalding stayed with the group until she was 15 and left as concertmaster. Due to a lengthy illness when she was a child, Spalding spent much of her elementary school years being homeschooled, but also attended King Elementary School in northeast Portland. During this time, she also found the opportunity to pick up instruction in music by listening to her mother’s college teacher instructor, who instructed her mother in guitar. According to Spalding, when she was about eight, her mother briefly studied jazz guitar in college; Spalding says: “Going with her to her class, I would sit under the piano. Then I would come home and I would be playing her stuff that her teacher had been playing”.
Spalding had begun performing live in clubs in Portland, Oregon, as a teenager, securing her first gig at the age of 15 in a blues club, when she could play only one line on bass. One of the seasoned musicians with which she played that first night invited her to join the band’s rehearsals “so she could actually learn something”, and her rehearsals soon grew into regular performances spanning almost a year. According to Spalding, it was a chance for her to stretch as a musician, reaching and growing beyond her experience. Her early contact with these “phenomenal resources”, as she calls the musicians who played with her, fostered her sense of rhythm and helped nurture her interest in her instrument.
Spalding had intended to play cello, but discovered the bass during a one-year stint at age 14 at the performing arts high school, The Northwest Academy, to which she had won a scholarship. The school was not a good fit, but the bass was. Spalding found high school “easy – and boring” and dropped out. When she was 15 or 16 years old, Spalding started writing lyrics for music for the local indie rock/pop group Noise for Pretend, touching on any topic that came to mind. Although she had taken a few private voice lessons, which taught her how to project her voice, her primary singing experience had come from “singing in the shower”, she said, before she started performing vocals for Noise for Pretend. Her desire to perform live evolved naturally out of the compositional process, when she would sing and play simultaneously to see how melody and voice fit together, but she acknowledges that performing both roles can be challenging. In a 2008 interview, she said, “what can be difficult is being a singer, in the sense that you are engaged with the audience, and really responsible for emoting, and getting into the lyrics, melody, etc., and being an effective bassist/band leader”.
Spalding left high school at 16, and after completing her GED enrolled in a music scholarship in the music program at Portland State University, where she remembers being “the youngest bass player in the program”. Although she lacked the training of her fellow students, she feels that her teachers nevertheless recognized her talent. She decided to apply to Berklee College of Music on the encouragement of her bass teacher, and did well enough in her audition to receive a full scholarship. In spite of the scholarship, Spalding found meeting living expenses a challenge, so her friends arranged a benefit concert that paid her airfare and a little extra.
Broke and exhausted, she considered leaving music and entering political science, a move jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny discouraged, telling Spalding she had “the X Factor'” and could make it if she applied herself.
Gary Burton, Executive Vice President at Berklee, said in 2004 that Spalding had “a great time feel, she can confidently read the most complicated compositions, and she communicates her upbeat personality in everything she plays”.
Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times on July 9, 2006, that Spalding’s voice is “light and high, up in Blossom Dearie’s pitch range, and [that] she can sing quietly, almost in a daydream” and that Spalding “invents her own feminine space, a different sound from top to bottom.” Spalding was the 2005 recipient of the Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding musicianship. Almost immediately after graduation from college later the same year, Spalding was hired by Berklee College of Music, becoming one of the youngest instructors in the institution’s history, at age 20.
As a teacher, Spalding tries to help her students focus their practice through a practice journal, which can help them recognize their strengths and what they need to pursue.
Her debut album, Junjo, was released on April 18, 2006, on the Ayva Music label. It was created to display the dynamic that she felt among her trio. Though Junjo was released solely under her name, Spalding considers it “a collaborative effort”
When asked in 2008 why she plays the bass instead of some other instrument, Spalding said that it was not a choice, but the bass “had its own arc” and resonated with her. Spalding has said that, for her, discovering the bass was like “waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker.” By the time she randomly picked up the bass in music class and began experimenting with it, she had grown bored with her other instruments. Her band teacher showed her a blues line for the bass that she later used to secure her first gig. After that, she went in to play the bass daily and gradually fell in love.
Ratliff wrote in The New York Times again, two years later, on May 26, 2008, that one of Spalding’s central gifts is “a light, fizzy, optimistic drive that’s in her melodic bass playing and her elastic, small-voiced singing,” but that “the music is missing a crucial measure of modesty.” He added: “It’s an attempt at bringing this crisscrossing [of Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter] to a new level of definition and power, but its vamps and grooves are a little obvious, and it pushes her first as a singer-songwriter, which isn’t her primary strength.”
Pat Metheny said in 2008 it was immediately obvious “that she had a lot to say and was also unlike any musician I had ever run across before. Her unique quality is something that goes beyond her pretty amazing musical skills; she has that rare ‘x’ factor of being able to transmit a certain personal kind of vision and energy that is all her own.” Andrés Quinteros wrote in the Argentinian periodical, 26Noticias on October 28, 2008, that Spalding is one of the greatest new talents on the jazz scene today. Patti Austin hired Spalding to tour with her internationally after Spalding’s first semester at Berklee, where Spalding supported the singer on the Ella Fitzgerald tribute tour “For Ella.”
In 2008 Spalding recalled the tour as educational, helping her learn to accompany a vocalist and also how to sustain energy and interest playing the same material nightly. She continued to perform with Austin periodically for three years. During the same period, while at Berklee, Spalding studied under saxophonist Joe Lovano, before eventually touring with him. They began as a trio, expanding into a quartet before joining quintet US5 and traveling across the United States from New York to California. As of 2008, she was also in the process of developing several courses for students at Berklee, including one that focuses “on transcribing as a tool for learning harmony and theory.” Due to touring commitments, Spalding stopped giving classes at Berklee. She lives in New York and Austin, Texas.
Esperanza is Spalding’s second studio album. After Spalding’s Grammy win in February 2011, the album entered the Billboard 200 at 138. With Esperanza, Spalding’s material was meant to be more reflective of herself as an artist, with musicians selected to best present that material. Ed Morales wrote in PopMatters on June 23, 2008, that Esperanza is “a sprawling collage of jazz fusion, Brazilian, and even a touch of hip-hop.” Siddhartha Mitter wrote in The Boston Globe on May 23, 2008, that “the big change” in Esperanza “is the singing…. This makes it a much more accessible album, and in some ways more conventional.”
On December 10 at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, Spalding performed at Oslo City Hall in honor of the 2009 Laureate U.S. President Barack Obama, and again at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert the following day. She was personally selected by Obama, as per the tradition of one laureate-invited-artist to perform.
As a tribute to Prince, Spalding was invited to sing along with Patti LaBelle, Alicia Keys and Janelle Monáe. Spalding performed the 1987 hit single “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”
On February 7, 2010, Spalding became the most searched person and second most searched item on Google Search as a result of her appearance the previous evening on the PBS television program Austin City Limits. In November 2011, Spalding won “Jazz Artist of the Year” at the Boston Music Awards.
Spalding collaborated with Tineke Postma on the track “Leave Me a Place Underground” from the album The Dawn of Light in 2011. She also collaborated with Terri Lyne Carrington on the album The Mosaic Project, where she features on the track “Crayola”. Spalding sings a duet with Nicholas Payton on the track “Freesia” from the 2011 album Bitches of Renaissance.
In the 53rd 2011 Grammy Awards, she won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, defeating teen pop recording artist Justin Bieber, indie rock band Florence and the Machine, folk band Mumford and Sons and hip-hop rapper Drake. Bieber’s fans targeted Spalding on the Internet, stating that she was not as popular as Bieber and that he should have won the award. They also incorrectly edited her Wikipedia page.
Chamber Music Society is the third album by Spalding. After her surprise Grammy win, the album re-entered the Billboard 200 at number 34 with sales of 18,000. A video was made for the song “Little Fly”. The song is a poem by William Blake set to music by Spalding. A vinyl version of the album was released in February 2011. This version of the album included a bonus track, “Morning”, that is to be included in the tracklist of her upcoming Radio Music Society album. Commenting on the album, NPR Music’s Patrick Jarenwattananon wrote that, “the finished product certainly exudes a level of sophisticated intimacy, as if best experienced with a small gathering in a quiet, wood-paneled room.”
Spalding was the best-selling contemporary jazz artist of 2011, and her album Chamber Music Society was the best-selling contemporary jazz album. On February 26, 2012, Spalding performed at the 84th Academy Awards, singing the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World”, alongside the Southern California Children’s Chorus to accompany the video montage that celebrated the film industry greats who died in 2011 and early 2012.
Radio Music Society is Spalding’s fourth studio album, released by record label Heads Up International on March 20, 2012. Spalding hoped this album would showcase jazz musicians in an accessible manner suitable for mainstream radio while incorporating her own musical compositions with covers of such artists as the Beach Boys and Wayne Shorter.
Spalding was featured on Janelle Monáe’s album, The Electric Lady, on the track “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes.” The album was released on September 10, 2013. She also sang a jazz duet on Bruno Mars’ album, Unorthodox Jukebox), called “Old & Crazy”.
In November 2013, Spalding released a protest/action single “We Are America” to protest the Guantánamo prison camps, with cameo performances by Stevie Wonder.
She has cited jazz bassists Ron Carter and Dave Holland as important influences on her music; Carter for the “orchestration” of his playing and Holland for the way his compositional method complements his personal style. She has described the saxophone player Wayne Shorter, and singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, as heroes.She has also noted her preference for the music of Brazil.
Spalding has said she loves fusion music and was influenced by a “wonderful arc that started 40 years ago where people kept incorporating modern sounds into their music”. She has expressed concerns that jazz has wandered from its roots, suggesting that jazz has lost its street value and its relevance to “the Black experience to the Black Diaspora and beyond” now that has been co-opted by the “seasoned ‘art’ community”. She has noted that, in its early days, jazz was “popular dance music” and “the music of young people who considered themselves awfully hip”, and believes “hip-hop, or neo-soul […] is our ‘jazz’ now as far as the role these genres play in the music genre lineage”. Spalding, who has expressed a desire to be judged for her musicianship rather than her sex appeal, believes that female musicians must take responsibility to avoid oversexualizing themselves. And, in order to write original music, one must read and stay informed about the world. She has said she models her career on those of Madonna and Ornette Coleman.