At the age of 15, Esperanza Spalding picked up a bass. She’s never put it down

first_imgEmily, of course, is also Spalding’s middle name.“Ebony and Ivy” was inspired by Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.A 2006 report commissioned by Brown University revealed that institution’s complex and contested involvement in slavery–setting off a controversy that leapt from the ivory tower to make headlines across the country. But Brown’s troubling past was far from unique. In Ebony and Ivy, Craig Steven Wilder, a rising star in the profession of history, lays bare uncomfortable truths about race, slavery, and the American academy.Many of America’s revered colleges and universities–from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams College, and UNC–were soaked in the sweat, the tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color. Slavery funded colleges, built campuses, and paid the wages of professors. Enslaved Americans waited on faculty and students; academic leaders aggressively courted the support of slave owners and slave traders. Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them.Spalding is acutely aware of what she owes to jazz history, and to artists like Wayne Shorter, a pioneer of jazz fusion. Here’s her vocal tribute to Shorter at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2018, performing “Endangered Species.”In an earlier tribute to Shorter, Spalding picked up the bass guitar for this 2009 performance of that same composition on Austin City Limits. Which do you prefer?Spalding’s versatility can be seen in cross-genre collaborations—like this one with Grammy Award-winning pianist Robert Glasper.Spalding also engages in social activism offstage. She’s been an ambassador for the Innocence Project since 2018.A lot of Spalding’s music takes on a keen social consciousness.  She dedicated Land of the Free to Innocence Project client Cornelius Dupree, who was exonerated after spending more than 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. (She performed at our 25th Anniversary celebration where she had a chance to meet Cornelius and his wife, Selma.) Spalding also made a video in 2013 titled We Are America about the prison in Guantanamo Bay and performed at the Peace Ball at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.It was great to see the birthday wishes for her roll in last month. May she be gifted with many more.I realize, dear readers, that there are many bassists whom I haven’t yet covered in this series. Join me in the comments for some of them, and feel free to post your favorites. And if you have some free time (or extra funds)—help us get Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff elected in Georgia! Never heard of Esperanza Spalding? Here’s a great introduction.The American Academy of Achievement has an extensive biography of Spalding, including several video interviews.Esperanza Spalding was born in Portland, Oregon. Her parents separated when she was very young, and her mother raised Esperanza and her brother on her own in King, a Portland neighborhood that suffered from poverty and violence in the years when Esperanza was growing up. Despite the family’s limited resources, Esperanza’s mother encouraged free thinking and creative expression for her children and exposed them to a variety of cultural influences.Esperanza fell in love with music at age four, after seeing the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Too small to hold the cello, she took up the violin. After a few violin lessons she was able to practice and study on her own. Her progress on her first instrument was extraordinary. The Portland community provided a number of opportunities for young people to participate in music ensembles and young Esperanza took advantage of them all. At age five she was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon.Over the next ten years, she learned guitar with her mother, taught herself piano, and experimented with the clarinet and oboe. By 15, she was concertmaster (lead violinist) with the Chamber Music Society and ready to pursue her original dream of playing the cello. By chance, she picked up an upright bass instead and fell in love with the giant of the string family. Even larger than the cello, the bass is usually the chosen instrument of tall men with long arms and big hands. At five-foot-six, Esperanza Spalding compensated for her smaller stature with an outsize talent and unrelenting commitment to music. She also took up the electric bass, and began writing songs, singing and leading a band in Portland rock clubs.- Advertisement – Spalding’s affinity with the bass has been on display to jazz fans from the time she released her debut album in 2006, Junjo, as Michael G. Nastos at All Music wrote at the time.The debut recording by acoustic upright bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, a native of Portland, OR, residing in Boston, MA, is an exercise in joy and freedom. Well rendered for such a very young musician, it’s quite notable, considering the certainty of her concept and clarity of her vision. While steeped in contemporary jazz, there are Latin flavors, unabashed free moments, and some implied and direct swing. Further, it is an expression of her well-being, optimism, and future hope for her life in this music. Also in her peer group, pianist Aruan Ortiz and drummer Francisco Mela add a hundredfold to this music and establish themselves as leaders-to-be, and are quite capable partners for Spalding‘s wonderful sounds. The first piece, a take of the Jimmy Rowles evergreen “The Peacocks,” lets you know something special is going on. Spalding‘s bass leads out with the probing piano of Ortiz as wordless vocals and a modal jam all precede the melody, followed by a free section. The imagination quotient of this interpretation is off the charts.Listen to “The Peacocks” yourself, and you’ll find yourself agreeing with Nastos: There is something special going on.Yet despite becoming a professor at 20, and releasing her first album at 21, Spalding is quick to dismiss those who describe her as a prodigy, for one very clear reason.- Advertisement – xwell, this being over here is deep in study and conjure mode in the quietude self-quarantining.  for those who might be interested, here’s some talkings about spells, music-gift-commodity relations and more…love to all— esperanza spalding (@EspeSpalding) March 22, 2020Spalding is not just an instrumentalist; she is a gifted singer-songwriter as well. Nor is she locked into what people expect to hear from a “jazz artist.” She moves fluidly and freely between musical genres. NPR’s Lara Pellegrinelli wrote an effusive review of Spalding in back in 2018, going so far as to call her a “genius.”A favorite of the Obamas, Spalding performed “Overjoyed” at the White House in tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2009, sparking a relationship between the two artists. Prince invited her to jam, and she played on his BET Lifetime Achievement Award tribute and opened for him on tour in 2011. (When I saw the show, I couldn’t help checking out Questlove seated at the end of my aisle, his head bobbing to Spalding’s “I Know You Know.”) Radio Music Society featured a guest appearance by Lalah Hathaway; Q-Tip produced a pair of its tracks. Spalding appeared as a guest on Janelle Monáe’s 2013 album The Electric Lady and Bruno Mars’ 2012 Unorthodox Jukebox.These artists clearly acknowledge Spalding as a talented peer. The benefits of their creative exchanges may seem obvious to those outside of jazz, but they run contrary to jazz’s often elitist musical culture. They come at a time when the form has its sights set in the rearview mirror, when most young artists are “trying to sound like they peaked in 1942 or 1957,” says Carrington.Spalding, instead, has more in common with two of jazz’s greatest living composers: pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, co-founder of the superband Weather Report. (Incidentally, Spalding is writing the libretto for Shorter’s opera Iphigenia, premiering in 2020.) Alumni of Miles Davis’ second great quintet, the two men pioneered fusion starting in the 1970s, walking paths that brought them to audiences for commercial music.Yes, Spalding is a fave of the Obamas. In 2009, she performed at President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony.Here she is backstage at the White House in 2016. One of the things I miss the most about not having the Obamas in the White House? The amazing array of artists that they supported, Spalding among them.Here’s Spalding at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam.For Black History Month 2012, Spalding released this remarkable video for “Black Gold.”NPR offers some context.The Afro-centric implication of the title is no coincidence. The song was released yesterday, Feb. 1 — the first day of Black History Month. The video was premiered yesterday on a network called Black Entertainment Television. And to these ears, the music itself connects jazz aesthetics to sounds of black popular music today.In case that message wasn’t clear, Spalding wrote some commentary on the track for members of the press:This song is singing to our African American heritage before slavery. Over the decades, so much of the strength in the African American community has seeded from resistance and endurance. I wanted to address the part of our heritage spanning back to pre-colonial Africa and the elements of Black pride that draw from our connection to our ancestors in their own land. I particularly wanted to create something that spoke to young boys. In the interview below, Spalding talks about growing up in a rough neighborhood, and how important it was to have community programs in Portland that supported the arts. She shares memories of hearing Yo-Yo Ma for the first time, on public television, and on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Full video transcript here.In a 2008 interview with Nu-Soul Magazine, Spalding explained her unique choice of instrument.“Well, I didn’t really choose the bass, nor did I expect it to take me anywhere as I started studying it.  I played many other instruments, well dabbled at them, but the bass had its own arc and it unfolded a path for me that I just kept following. I don’t know why or how, but my evolution on bass actually occurred quite naturally and unexpectedly. What would I do with any other instrument? That is kind of how I feel. The bass and I just resonate.”- Advertisement – The Brooklyn concert was a preview before a world tour that started this month showcasing her new album, which marks her evolution as a singer-songwriter. It is less overtly jazz-related than her four previous solo releases. She doesn’t play any acoustic bass or take solos.“Emily is a name for a process … when you sense that there’s something pent up that you haven’t been developing,” said Spalding, 31, said at a cafe near her Brooklyn home. “It sometimes takes an eruption to open that up and that’s a lot of what Emily does.” The lyrics are powerful:Think of all the strength you have in youFrom the blood you carry within youAncient manPowerful manBuilders of civilizationHold your head as high as you canHigh enough to see who you are, little manLife sometimes is cold and cruelBaby no one else will tell you so remember thatYou are Black Gold, Black GoldYou are Black GoldIn an interview with Yin & Yang, Spalding speaks briefly about her process when writing the song, and about Black identity writ large.She further reinforces her identity as a Black woman—a group for whom hair has historically been a key issue in the context of white society—in “How To (hair),” from her 2018 Grammy Award-winning album, 12 Little Spells. The final lyrics are potent.I raise my palm in praise of the symphonic nappynessHaloing your headI raise my palm in praise of the God-given nappynessHaloing your headI raise my palm in praise of the beautiful nappynessHaloing your headAs with “Black Gold,” the video is a powerful one!In 2016 Spalding went in a different direction, with the release of Emily’s D+Evolution, reviewed for the Philadelphia Tribune by jazz writer Charles J. Gans (who is also a Daily Kos contributor). Supported by her power rock trio of electric guitarist Matthew Stevens, drummer Jason Tyson and three yellow-clad backup singers-dancers, Spalding turned her Brooklyn show into performance art using such props as a stack of books on “Ebony and Ivy,” which alludes to the historic links between elite American universities and the slave trade. – Advertisement –last_img

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