Esperanza Spalding is an American jazz bassist/vocalist/composer, whose work draws on multiple genres and influences. In 2011 she won the GRAMMY® for Best New Artist — becoming the first jazz musician in history to win the award.
Could you express what drew you to jazz in the first place?
It’s not really something I can specifically express, because it’s very visceral and guttural. I had been playing classical music all my life up to that point, and I experienced a very different emotional reaction to that music. I hadn’t really heard it before. I fell in love with the music that I was hearing live, the culture, the people, the records and the energy of the records. It’s one of those things. You don’t know you are falling in love with somebody but then you just keep thinking about them, wanting to see them all the time and hang out. I can’t put my finger on why I loved it, but I felt that I wanted to do it all the time, to listen to it and learn.
You moved into bass when you were a teenager, after piano, violin and clarinet.
I think we are attracted to the instruments that are either the balance to our nature, or are our nature. I’m a very airy person and so I think I was drawn to the balance of my nature, which is the bass. In my life, being a bass player is therapeutic, stimulating and keeps me grounded, literally. The dynamic of people in the music is a metaphor for what we are, and it ends up being whatever you’re playing. And I love the role of being bass player, both for the energetic relationship to my fellow band members and for being a bass player for myself.
Jazz brings into play a mix of different influences – technique, improvisation, adaptability, versatility and freedom, etc. Could you share your experience of playing jazz music?
It’s like when you’re in a situation with people you really admire and respect – great minds, great leaders, great individuals. In that moment you want to be your best self. You find yourself extending into your better self. You’re drawing on the vocabulary, historical references, etiquette, openness, honesty or directness that you’ve learned – whatever you feel will be the best mode to interact and communicate from your highest self in that moment. But in that moment and space you are improvising, you don’t know what they’re about to say, you don’t know how the conversation could turn. You know you have to be available to adapt to wherever the conversation goes, the moment they go, or if there is an added element. Maybe someone walks in the room right in the middle of the conversation and it totally shifts the dynamic. There’s a deep element of improvisation in that moment. You try to stay being fully at your maximum – with everything you’ve learned and practiced and studied, heard, believed and didn’t believe – yet stay totally flexible to apply what seems the most meaningful from millisecond to millisecond. Sometimes that’s silence. Sometimes it’s something that you’ve never done before that you didn’t know that you would be able to do. Playing this music is like that.
You mentioned before the element of respect. Could you elaborate?
I think most great players have a lot of respect for humanity and they take their work very seriously. They recognize that playing improvised music is a very sacred exchange. People trust that you’re going to do something from the heart that’s genuine, and there’s a deeper level of understanding when what you are playing is genuine. It’s a very serious relationship of trust. I think there’s definitely a common denominator of respect in any jazz musician. There is a deep respect for the music and for what happens in the music when you play. The legacy, the catalogue, the history of this music is very deep and multi-faceted. And there have been a lot of sacrifices made for this music. Students of the music understand that, and there’s a lot of respect for what’s been done up to this point in time in improvised music, in jazz music.
How do you think jazz can be a vehicle for nurturing creativity and expression?
It’s twofold. It’s good for self-confidence and humility at the same time. You hear something that seems so far beyond your capacity to understand how to play, you keep working at it and all of a sudden it’s like this magic effect happens in the moment where the results are greater than what you specifically or technically practiced. On the other hand you recognize that so much greatness has happened before you and is happening around you. It’s so broad, massive, colourful and moving, and at the same time you feel a great humility to be within that community – whether the community is with friends that you play with in your hometown, or a high school jazz band. It’s very humbling. And I think that’s a very important aspect of being a human in society. We need to feel like we can contribute something, that we’re capable and that we have a purpose. With this music you get that affirmation. It helps to contextualise our relationship to the great milieu that is life. That sounds pretty far out there, but I really believe that it’s true. It gives you a place in the world.
At the same time it’s something that everyone can relate and respond to – a universal language.
Right, so not only do we feel we have a place in the world, but there’s a way to communicate your experience of being a human being, which is a crucial necessity of the human spirit. You feel like you’re heard and understood by others. When you get up on stage, sometimes we play things when I think ‘oh we’re really going with the moment, I don’t know if anybody is going to like that’. And you can just feel from the audience that they went with us, they appreciated and supported what we were experiencing in that moment, and had an experience too. That affirmation that we’re all in this together, that we’re not alone in what we are feeling, believing and hoping for, is so appealing and inspiring. It makes you want to get to the level where you can continue to capture that universality and spread it in your music. The other day I was in a cab with a gentleman from Pakistan. Three of us were in the car and we started talking about different music. He was listening to country folk or something. We started talking about music we liked and music he liked, and then he said ‘but you know what my favourite music is… jazz.’ He knows that at the bottom of his heart what really moves him is jazz.
Have there been any jazz masters who have had a particular influence in your life and in your work?
Yes, too many to mention. I’m sure each person I’ve met has had an influence on my life and music, anybody who’s really a masterful player. This music is such a profound testament to their spirit, to something bigger than them. And I admire that, and I’m taking that step, taking that vow.
In recent years we’ve seen more visibility of women in jazz.
Like in everything. I think it’s true across the board actually, I don’t think it’s a special thing in jazz. It’s something we’re seeing on the planet, so it’s happening in jazz. I think it’s pretty consistent with what you find everywhere in the world as a professional woman. There are people who couldn’t care less if you’re a woman and just are interested in what you do, and are attracted to you because of your talent, your work ethic or your energy. And there are people who are chauvinistic and just want to use your sexuality – you have the whole gamut. When people act weird to me, I never think it’s because I am a jazz musician, but more that they are men or women behaving in a way that I don’t like. So I believe it’s really a macrocosm of what we are as a society. I just love that more women who are interested in this music just go for it now. I have never thought ‘that’s weird, I’m a woman’, as that road had already been opened up by the time I got into playing.
In your career so far, has mentorship been an important part of your work and your development as an artist?
For sure, definitely, that’s what it’s really about. Mentorship is a huge part of everything really. This music is an art form that’s passed down, from hand to hand. You only learn by doing it, and you’ve got to do it with people who are more experienced than you.
Do you have any advice for young people starting out in jazz?
Just go for it all the way. Keep creative with how you want to contextualise what you’re hearing and what you want to do. Any gig that might come your way is an opportunity to translate your vision into that context. Do your vision, your creativity, in the context that you’ve been allotted at a given moment in time, knowing of course that it’s going to evolve. Every context is the ideal context to go for your vision.
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