Esperanza Spalding: Mainstream Music, Femininity and Her Impact On Jazz Music Today.
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
Esperanza Spalding: virtuoso bassist, singer, songwriter, arranger and composer. Some have described her as the ‘new hope for jazz’. Born in Portland, Oregon, at a time where gang violence was at its height, Esperanza Spalding was raised by her mother who had a similar interest in music having briefly studied jazz guitar in college. Spalding attended the music programme at Portland State University and on the encouragement of her bass teacher decided to apply to Berklee College of Music where she was accepted on a full scholarship. Now seven collaborative and five solo albums into her career at 31, Spalding continues to contribute greatly to the development of jazz. Esperanza's contributions have included: her success in bringing jazz into the mainstream, her open-mindedness, alongside others, allowing for the label of ‘jazz’ to incorporate so much more than ever before and further, her role as an accomplished female instrumentalist which directly challenges gender stereotypes in jazz and the media.
One of Spalding’s greatest contributions to the development of jazz today is her ability to bring this arguably niche music into the mainstream. Spalding has always pushed for forward-movement in jazz, commenting in an interview for the New Yorker “the most important time is, like, right now. It’s the people who are learning now and creating new things right now”. Her electric bass driven, self-titled debut album 'Esperanza' indeed suggests a bewildering array of influences. It is rife with highly accessible tracks. Siddhartha Mitter wrote in The Boston Globe that "the big change" in 'Esperanza' "is the singing.... This makes it a much more accessible album and in some ways more conventional.” Tracks such as 'I Know You Know' with its fast-paced, complex rhythms and catchy groove and melody demonstrate Spalding's ability to cross the boundary between instrumental jazz and popular music. Furthermore, her fourth studio album 'Radio Music Society' (Heads Up International, 2012) is an album comprising of Spalding’s own musical compositions as well as several inimitable covers of well-known artists including the Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder. Spalding provides a doorway into jazz for those unfamiliar with this idiom.
Around the release of 'Radio Music Society', Spalding was also collaborating with several leading pop artists. She appeared on Janelle Monáe's highly revered 2013 album, 'The Electric Lady' as well as Bruno Mars' 'Unorthodox Jukebox'. These collaborations demonstrate Spalding’s awareness of the jazz-pop spectrum: here Spalding enables pop-inclined listeners to discover her music, it demonstrates her strong personal sense of where jazz needs to go.
A further example of Spalding’s ability to blur the jazz-pop lines is her 2011 Grammy win. Aged 26 at the time, young for a jazz virtuoso yet the oldest among her fellow nominees, was awarded the Grammy for Best New Artist, one of the highest-profile categories. In winning, she beat Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons, Drake and Justin Bieber – hugely successful artists in the pop world. This win was an unexpected plaudit for Esperanza. The Grammys notoriously and routinely reward top-selling acts signed to major labels irrespective of musical talent. However, in 2011 something revolutionary seemed to take place; in Spalding’s case, her genuine virtuosic ability won out over her lesser commercial success in comparison to others nominated for the award. As a result, for the first time in a long time, jazz musicians were able to feel less far-removed from so-called 'popularity contests' like the Grammys. Surely, proof if anything that Spalding’s forward thinking and embracement of popular culture has contributed to the acceptance of jazz music today.
Another contribution to jazz for which Esperanza Spalding is in part responsible, is the broadening of the ‘jazz’ label to something wider than ever before. As someone who cites Madonna, Ornette Coleman, Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter as influences (within the same sentence might I add), I'd expect the musical outcome to be brilliant. Indeed, Ed Morales wrote in PopMatters that Esperanza is "a sprawling collage of jazz fusion, Brazilian, and even a touch of hip-hop." – to describe Spalding as a “collage” is highly apt. The first track on Radio Music society, Radio Song weaves elegantly through many genres. A well-versed listener can hear the likes of Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker Brothers and Wayne Shorter infused with a heavy hip-hop groove and elements of traditional big band music. Spalding is the epitome of musical fusion, an arc that started 40 years ago with the merging of virtuosic jazz improvisation with funk, rock, blues and Latin jazz. Esperanza embraces all the aforementioned genres and more and does so in her very own sparkling and unique way, expressing as much in a single composition. Some examples of the sheer variety Spalding is capable of can be heard on her sixth studio album Emily’s D+Evolution. The New York Times comments that “[Spalding’s] song Funk Your Fear has the serpentine gnarl of a Funkadelic anthem and the track Noble Nobles brazenly evokes Hejira-era Joni Mitchell.”
The use of songwriting in coalescence with jazz music stems from the writing of Joni Mitchell. Though initially recognised as a folk singer-songwriter, Mitchell changed and broadened the face of jazz. She always evaded genre-placement, was indefinable in her writing and earned the respect of the jazz community by integrating jazz harmony into her music and utilising jazz heavyweights Michael Brecker, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny among others. Joni’s album ‘Shadows and Light’ (featuring the above) was recorded live in 1980; it is widely agreed to be one of Joni’s greatest performances. It is interesting that Esperanza cites Joni as an influence. It is not far-fetched to describe Spalding as a modern-day Joni Mitchell as she expands upon this legacy of indefinability, going further in many ways and embracing a wider spectrum of musical genres than Joni ever did.
Not only is the broadening of the jazz genre popular among listeners, it is freeing for the artist. London-based record label jazz re:freshed practically relies on this principle of autonomy, stating that “most people tend to accept the definitions of jazz given to them by the media” namely that jazz is a “stuck-in-the-past music form – this couldn’t be further than the truth”. Their artists’ music is edgy, popular and embraces a whole variety of genres allowing artists to flourish. Esperanza is one of the leading names in this freedom movement.
Setting the music aside, a huge contribution Spalding has made to jazz today is her aid in creating gender balance. In simply being her greatest self - a highly accomplished female instrumentalist - Spalding is paving the way for the empowerment and appreciation of other young female jazz musicians. Achieving your goals as a jazz musician is hard enough when you don't have the added dimension of womanhood to consider. Not only are female instrumentalists often faced with the preconception of inferiority, female jazz musicians are concerned with a genre in which the commonly accepted and unchallenged “greats” are all male. The likes of Mary Lou Williams, Lil Hardin and Joanne Brackeen, all especially talented instrumentalists, were never considered quite good enough to stand alongside Art Tatum, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. As Sasha Berliner comments in 'An Open Letter to Ethan Iverson (And The Rest of Jazz Patriarchy)' “There was the notion that women shouldn’t play “hot jazz” for it being too masculine, unattractive, impulsive, or dominant… women didn’t play that role in the field of entertainment.” Such outdated ideas are frequently carried forwards to modern day jazz culture – this is why we need women like Spalding. The key to development in this area of jazz must be musicianship first which is what Spalding has and preaches. Importantly, Spalding wields the profile that the female instrumentalists of the past could never achieve. Though it can be argued that Spalding would have never achieved widespread popularity if she wasn’t the photogenic, highly marketable character that she is. It is easy for the detractors to claim that Spalding’s ‘attractiveness’ is the only factor conducive to her success, but this is just another version of the same prejudice. Attractive or not, in being a well-versed female instrumentalist in the public eye, Spalding can claim some responsibility for steering jazz in the right direction and cultivating a musicianship-first attitude towards female musicians.
In conclusion, it is my belief that without the contribution of Esperanza Spalding, jazz music today would not shine so brightly. It wouldn’t be so fresh or of-the-moment or have such an appreciative growing audience. It wouldn’t be so open-minded, freeing and frankly uncategorisable. Perhaps foremostly, without uber-talented women like Esperanza, we would not be on the winning side of our battle against gender inequality in the music industry. She encourages a whole other half of the jazz community (women) to claim voicedness which can only be good for the music, not to mention healthier for jazz audiences and jazz education. Overall, Spalding is a musician steeped in music, she likely doesn’t even relish the weight of being the beacon or standard bearer many make her out to be. However, Spalding teaches us a valuable lesson. She just wants to play the music and perhaps when we can all finally focus on that, we know our job is done.