She was the least well known and the lowest-selling artist in the group. But that didn't stop Esperanza Spalding, a 26-year-old jazz vocalist and bassist who combines old-school cool with an ebullient personality that has energized her genre, from winning the Grammy Award for best new artist in one of the night's biggest surprises.
Spalding was a decided underdog in an eclectic field of competitors that included the teen pop idol and newly minted movie star Justin Bieber, hip-hop artist Drake, British indie pop-rockers Florence and the Machine and English folk rockers Mumford & Sons.
With an experimental style that integrates neo-soul, funk, hip-hop and bossa nova elements, Spalding has emerged as the rare jazz artist who's respected by critics and old-timers but also possesses the crossover potential to attract audiences beyond the hard-core jazz aficionados.
Her champions include President Barack Obama, who personally chose her to play at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in his honor. In addition to her appearances at prominent jazz festivals, Spalding also has performed on Austin City Limits, a gig that hints at her growing popular appeal.
In accepting her award, Spalding thanked the Recording Academy "for even nominating me in this category."
"I take this honor to heart so sincerely, and I'll do my damnedest to make a whole lot of great music for all of you," she said.
Current Nielsen Soundscan figures show Bieber with three albums currently on the charts and combined sales of more than 4.5 million copies and Drake with 1.3 million units of his album sold.
Although well short of those numbers, Esperanza's third release, "Chamber Music Society" (2010), ranked among the top-selling contemporary jazz albums earlier this year. Her second recording, "Esperanza" (2008), topped Billboard's contemporary jazz chart for more than 70 weeks.
Speaking backstage after receiving her award, Spalding paid a compliment to Bieber — widely considered the category's front-runner — as well as to his trademark coif.
"He is unquestionably talented and will have so many more records for his fans to sink their teeth into," Spalding said. "Besides, he has great hair."
Spalding became the first jazz artist to win the award since the pop-oriented Norah Jones took home the trophy in 2003. Jazz artists seldom triumph in any major Grammy category. When Herbie Hancock won album of the year in 2008 with "River: The Joni Letters," he was the first jazz artist to do so in approximately a half century.
Spalding, raised by a single mother in a tough Portland, Ore. neighborhood, has described her ethnic heritage as a mixture of African American, Latina, Welsh and Native American.
Her striking stage presence — slender frame, prodigious afro and effusive demeanor — has enhanced her charismatic appeal. In a review for the Los Angeles Times of her performance last October at Santa Monica's Broad Stage, Greg Burk wrote that Spalding "embraced her instrument like a friend; her fingers danced up and down the neck with sure spontaneity. When her voice — high and airy, with a touch of grain — sprang out in scat or melisma, her hands conversed easily with her throat, each making space for the other."
Backstage after winning her award, Spalding said the sudden acclaim wouldn't change her plans. "I guess it's just a blessing to be acknowledged in a genre that's considered an underdog. I got there by doing what's dear to my heart.
"For me this is the beginning of the beginning, I mean, I'm 26 and playing with people much older than me that are still doing it. Hopefully on the 30th album, I win something that's just as beautiful.
Times staff writers Chris Barton, Gerrick Kennedy and Rick Rojas contributed to this report.