The Sunday Conversation: Esperanza Spalding


Jazz bassist, singer and composer Esperanza Spalding made a news splash when she beat out pop phenom Justin Bieber for the new artist trophy at the 53rd Grammy Awards last year. Spalding, 27, and her Radio Music Society ensemble come to Southern California this month for an Aug. 21 performance at San Diego’s Humphreys Concerts by the Bay and an Aug. 22 double bill with Anita Baker at the Hollywood Bowl.

How did your Grammy change your life? Did it change your life?

Everything I do is pretty much the same as it was; we tour like we used to. But the venues are bigger. There’s more access to publicity, so the promoters know there’s a better chance of selling more tickets. The good thing has been that because we can play bigger venues, I can bring a bigger band. So I’ve gotten the opportunity to explore this type of ensemble that I’ve always wanted to experiment with, which is almost like a big band.


For the Record, 1:45 p.m. Aug. 4: The headline on a previous version of this article misidentified Esperanza Spalding as Esperanza Starling.

Also, it was very providential in a way because the concept I had for [her latest album] “Radio Music Society” had a lot to do with the hope that the music would end up on the radio. So after the Grammys, that actually became a little more tangible, which is great.

You had hoped that your “Radio Music Society” album would offer mainstream radio exposure for jazz musicians who don’t normally get it. So did that happen?

I don’t know. That was the quest, but … the main guiding light of any project is to make beautiful music that we’re happy with and want to share. Unfortunately, the songs don’t really line up with the formatting rules of mainstream media — they’re all too long, and they all don’t have obvious-enough hooks, and there are too many instrumental sections, etc., etc. So again, it’s doomed to very few radio stations, actually, not mainstream radio. But I heard from someone who came to a concert that they heard “Radio Song” in their car and they had the experience that “Radio Song” was describing [hearing a new song that will “keep you grooving”], and when I heard that I felt like, OK, mission accomplished.

You say on your website that when you were putting together “Radio Music Society,” you tried to put together “a program of music that speaks to the non-jazz listener” and that “everyone is invited to listen with no preconceived notions.” Do you think people are biased against jazz or even afraid of it?

I just think music is so intrinsically linked with images in the culture that we live in that you’ll be hard-pressed to have an experience with the music without a preconceived notion. If you’re somewhere and a song comes on the radio, the only reaction you need to have is the physical experience — actually experiencing that piece of music in that moment, knowing nothing about it. That’s the way I fell in love with most music. I think the music on its own, without someone trying to make it more mainstream, does have the potency and the life force within it to appeal to more people than get a chance to experience it.

For me, this project was looking for a way to take the basic elements of the music that move me so and package it in a way that might make it through onto the radio so someone could have that pure experience, hearing [saxophonist] Joe Lovano or listening to [drummer] Billy Hart play or a big band play, because jazz venues are so few and far between compared with the venues for other kinds of music — by “venues,” I mean television, movies, radio, commercials. I just thought maybe we can get a word in edgewise with this music, in a place that someone can really have a pure interaction with it. Because the practitioners of it do not fit the dominant images of what is salable, desirable and consumable in our modern mainstream culture.


In what way?

It’s usually middle-aged men. And guess what? It takes decades to get the music to a place where it’s worth sharing, and that’s what you get. The beauty of this craft is, it shouldn’t be about who’s prettiest or fastest or strongest or has the coolest clothes. Those are all details that can be sprinkled on top. But we’re in a culture that is obsessed with youth and women and body types and looking cool and hip and selling clothes and products. And the basic tenets of the music don’t align themselves very well with those requirements.

It’s a pity that if someone who has a really profoundly potent art to share chooses not to or doesn’t fit into this very thin slice of what’s desirable and marketable, chances are the public will never get a chance to hear what they’re doing. Because I know aspects of my image fit into that thin slice, I want to take people with me, hoping that through the music they’ll get exposed to an audience they might not get exposed to because of the stigma about image.

I gather that image is a double-edge sword for you, though, because you’ve said that young women artists have to avoid oversexualizing themselves so they can be judged for their musicianship. Can it be a disadvantage to be young and hot?

So I think it’s something that young women — and young men — will fall into because of what they see as a necessity to be appealing. Actually, it doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day, the music speaks for itself. That’s the beauty of the music, but sometimes when we dress that way, we’ll attract support from investors who want to capitalize on the image and are less concerned about the content of the art.

Do you get that kind of pressure?


No, I don’t make room for that kind of pressure. All the people that by now are in my circle know I don’t lean that way. At the beginning, people approached me with those sorts of ideas and I didn’t let them stick around.

What do you enjoy doing that doesn’t involve music?

I like to read, and I like dance. I don’t dance, but I like to see other people dance.

I can tell you the three books that are next to my reading chair. One is a book called “One by One,” which is by Daisaku Ikeda. The other one I’m in the middle of is by Arnold Toynbee — “A Study of History.” And the one that I was just about to finish was “Sexing the Cherry” by Jeannette Winterson.

As a child, you were shut in and home schooled during a lengthy illness. Do you think that early isolation helped shape you as an artist?

I think it has made me an introvert, which is really helpful if you have a lot of practicing and writing to do. I love people, and I love to be with people and to make music with people, but my natural state is to revert back to being by myself in my house, which is cool because that’s where I practice and write and listen and study.