It’s one of the coldest days of the year in Manhattan, with icy winds keeping most people indoors, but not Esperanza Spalding. The 27-year-old jazz artist is racing all over town. She spent the morning at a photo shoot for DownBeat magazine. Now she’s heading to a recording studio to fine-tune her next album. Tonight she’ll perform back-to-back sets at the Village Vanguard, the historic jazz club. But right now she’s taking a moment to grab a grilled-cheese sandwich at a café.
“I mean, you have to eat,” she says, as if she needs an excuse to sit still. Spalding doesn’t waste much time. She goes to bed early, gets up early, and practices the bass—her instrument of choice—every day. She rarely tweets, texts, or watches TV. “I want to,” she says, laughing. “I feel so out of the loop. I really admire people who work so much and still find the time to do that—they’re more bad-ass than me.” Still, her diligence pays. Since winning the Grammy for Best New Artist last year—besting Justin Bieber and infuriating his fans—she has performed 120 shows, hitting 15 countries and 50 U.S. cities. A new album, Radio Music Society, comes out next month.
She’s eager to hear the mix session for that album this afternoon, an indication of her hands-on approach. The engineer is a “genius,” she says. “But this is the last step where you make sure the balance of all the instruments is at a place where the music really comes through. I like to be a part of that.” The album is her fourth, and its 11 tunes are accompanied by short films, shot in New York, Spain, and Oregon.
Spalding became famous the old-fashioned way: hard work. No reality shows, no American Idol, no manufactured scandals involving naughty snapshots. She grew up in a gang-ridden corner of Portland, Ore., where a neighborhood child died when a stray bullet flew through a window. As a 5-year-old, she began playing in a community band; by the time she was 15, she was the concertmaster for an Oregon youth orchestra, with a scholarship to a private arts high school. At 20, she graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
She credits her mother, a single parent, with her early interest in the arts, recalling childhood evenings together spent reading books like The Little Prince, and later the biography of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She listened to the “oldies”—Motown and British rock bands from the ’60s and ’70s—because her mother didn’t think the modern stuff was good for her.
She downplays her gritty childhood. Growing up poor isn’t a “special” story, she says, but an American one. "Where I’m from is a really mild example. I mean, I’m sure my whole life we were under the poverty line, you know, but I still felt rich. I had a rich upbringing, rich in the sense of a lot of love, a lot of education, nature, music and art, and laughing.” She adds, “It’s not just about the income you make.”
Today she sounds like a 21st-century beat poet, peppering observations like these with phrases such as “Oh, man,” What a thrill,” “Whoa,” and “What a trip.” She says she sometimes worries that she isn’t diligent enough. She’s reading a book called The War of Art—about creative thinking—that is helping her focus. “Artists tend to get so caught up in their image of themselves as an ‘artist,’” she says, but that’s the wrong attitude. The author, Steven Pressfield, argues that creative people instead need to commit themselves to the “everyday, diligent, warrior-like mentality of just ‘Get up and do your work,’” Spalding says. “If it’s four hours, just get up and do your four hours. I really like that. It’s liberating somehow.”
Stepping out of the café, she’s greeted by an arctic blast to the face. “Oh, man,” she says. Head bowed and hands in her parka pockets, she looks for a cab to take her to the mix session for her album across town.
Later, at the Village Vanguard, she steps onstage wearing the same casual cardigan sweater she was wearing at lunch. The house is packed, with people crowded around tiny tables. The walls are lined with posters of jazz giants Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Standing onstage with her eyes closed, Spalding plays a bass that’s taller than her by a foot. Flanked by a pianist and a drummer, she smiles, frowns, laughs, says “Yeah.” She opens her eyes between numbers and flashes the audience a smile—but when the music starts, she’s in her own world.