Esperanza Spaulding Breaks New Ground in Jazz
Written by Tonya Pendleton, BlackAmericaWeb.com Tuesday, 31 January 2012 00:00
Esperanza Spalding is not a rap star with an oversized booty or an R&B singer with tattoos, an entourage or a famous husband. But she is one of music’s most insanely gifted talents – a genre-defying artist who sings in three languages and plays acoustic and electric bass and violin, among other instruments. To see this petite woman on stage switch effortlessly between the huge acoustic bass and the electric bass, accompanied by her own riveting vocals, is truly an experience. To restrict her to jazz is to put limits on a woman who seems thus far to be limitless.
Spalding, 26, is a native of Portland, Oregon. Despite her first name, both her parents are African-American. She has played for the President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and in Norway at the Nobel Peace Prize concert, just a few dates among her international touring schedule.
The Berklee School of Music graduate with the huge ‘fro taught herself the violin at age five, and is considered somewhat of a musical prodigy though she doesn’t view herself as such. Her latest CD, “Chamber Music Society” is a re-imagining of the time when chamber music was popular and music was enjoyed in intimate settings.
The Grammy Award nominee will perform during this weekend’s telecast, Sunday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m. on CBS.
BLACKAMERICAWEB.COM: Did you really get into music through teaching yourself to play violin?
ESPERANZA SPALDING: When I started playing violin, we couldn’t afford private lessons, but an incredible program existed in Portland, so they provided me with an instrument and some group classes, an orchestra, reading music and etcetera, but the instrument itself I ended up teaching myself for the first eight or nine years or so. I was figuring out how to apply what I learned in group lessons, and violin is a pretty funky instrument. It was a challenge, but learning how to evolve one’s own pedagogy was actually really good.
What was it that drew you so strongly to music in the first place?
I did theorize about it, but the defining moment for me was when I saw YoYo Ma on “Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood.” They did a special music week. I saw that as a child and was transfixed. Music never came as a career choice or work. It was what I loved, and I always explored it like that. It always seemed easy and fun. Some kids always want to play with dollies; some kids always want to play with Erector sets. I just always wanted to play the piano or the violin. It was my nature, and I was so blessed that I was exposed to it.
It seems like your background was pretty humble, which is different than how a lot of classical instrument musicians or jazz musicians start off. Was it challenging for you to find your way musically via public school music education?
If there was any disparity between me and wealthier kids, I didn’t see it, and it truly didn’t matter to me (Laughs). I was so welcomed into the programs that I was part of, and my mom was so supportive of anything that I wanted to explore artistically and creatively. I never, ever felt underprivileged in any way. I was one of the few kids that had access to everything that I needed. I was in these programs, and I had had free instruments, and when I started branching out from the violin and playing wind instruments, I was immediately welcomed. I never felt a disparity, and I was free to discover music in my own way.
How would you consider yourself a part of living history?
Just by being me and by living in the world I live in, I live it every day. It’s a funny question because I find the concept of Black History Month intriguing. Black history is world history, from any angle you want to explore it. It’s impossible to separate the history and the storyline of black people from anything that we can see in our daily lives. Maybe people like to think they’re not connected, but it’s impossible. Everything in our culture stems from black history and stems from white history, and that’s just the world we live in.
I’ve been able to see you in concert, and it’s amazing. I was so moved by your craft and the preparation that it must take. Being more familiar with the hip-hop end of the music business, where it doesn’t seem as though that’s a priority, I wondered what your take was on the concept of craft.
Well, first, I want to give my brothers and sisters in hip-hop their due. Any craft on a high level takes a lot of hard work and preparation. No field is better than the other. People use the tools that they’ve had access to, and do the best they can for their story. The excellent hip-hop artists have worked just as hard as any conservatory-trained artist at honing their craft.
Maybe you’re referring to the entertainment aspects of rap music, which is where you have people that can come up with a persona and a story of this rough life and appeal to people suffering within those same hardships. I do worry that young people see this image of success that’s completely disconnected in any real way from the beauty of hard work. Hard work and development and time and honing and individuality and self-expression as it relates to your own time [is so important] in what you choose to do. All I can say is as parents, pay attention to what your kids are ingesting because it goes straight in to their self-assessment and judgment of the world they’ll be adult members of.
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