Esperanza Spalding was the name which became famous and infamous at the same time when she won Best New Artist category at the 53rd Grammy Awards. Little known before the prestigious event, the jazz singer beat the odds when her name was called out instead of more established names such as Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons. She became the first jazz artist to win the category.
Spalding was born in 1984 to a Welsh/Hispanic/Native American mother and African-American father who got divorce when she was little. Her mom raised her and her brother as a single parent in Portland, Oregon, in a neighborhood which she described as "pretty scary". Her interest in music came mainly from her mom who was not only encouraging her daughter to enter music schools but also studied music herself.
Spalding credited cellist Yo Yo Ma for sparking her love of music when she was only four. She taught herself on how to play violin and joined her mother when she enrolled in a college to study jazz guitar. "Going with her to her class, I would sit under the piano. Then I would come home and I would be playing her stuff that her teacher had been playing," Spalding recalled.
Her skill in instrument-playing expanded when she found other options such as the oboe, cello and clarinet. But it was bass which caught her attention the most. She said, for her discovering the bass was like "waking up one day and realizing you're in love with a co-worker." In her mid-teens, Spalding started to shape her skill in writing and singing. She provided lyrics and voice for a local indie group calling themselves Noise for Pretend.
By 16, she completed her high school and enrolled in music program at Portland State University under a scholarship. Although she was the youngest bass player in the program, Spalding got the attention from her teacher who encouraged her to apply for Berklee College of Music. Stricken by money, she started performing live in clubs in Portland and the job soon became regular. She admitted later on that these years allowed her to stretch as a musician.
One thing lead to another, connections landed her a job as a supporting singer at Ella Fitzgerald tribute tour "For Ella". She also studied under the experts, went on a tour and absorbed like a sponge. "I am surrounded by prodigies everywhere I go, but because they are a little older than me, or not a female, or not on a major label, they are not acknowledged as such," she said.
She landed a teaching job at the age of 20 when Berklee College of Music wanted her to teach "on transcribing as a tool for learning harmony and theory". Meanwhile, she began recording her music, releasing her first album in 2006 under the title "Junjo". It was followed by two others in 2008 and 2010, the latest, titled "Chamber Music Society", which re-entered the Hot 200 chart after her Grammy win.
Spalding never thought that she would land a nomination, let alone win it. "I certainly did not expect to even be considered for that type of nomination, me being a little old jazz musician and everything," she told EW in December after the nominees were announced.
By February 2011 she was in the middle of recording her fourth album which would be released at the end of the year. "I want to take a lot of the players that I know that are really phenomenal jazz musicians right now, put them in these songs, and format it in a way that will end up on the radio without compromising the soul and the core of improvised music," she viewed the project.