Esperanza Spalding: a jazz legend in the making

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

Esperanza Emily Spalding was born on October 18, 1984, in Portland, Ore. She was raised in the King neighborhood in Northeast Portland, which at that time was at its height of gang violence. By the time Spalding was five years old, she had taught herself to play the violin, and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Spalding remained with the group until she was fifteen years old. Due to a lengthy childhood illness, she spent much of her elementary school years being home-schooled. During this time, she found the opportunity to pick up instruction in music by listening to her mother’s college teacher, who instructed her mother in guitar.

According to Spalding, when she was about eight, her mother briefly studied jazz guitar in college. Spalding said that she accompanied her mother to the classes, then, at home, repeated what the teacher had played. Spalding also played oboe and clarinet before discovering the double bass in high school.

Soon after, Spalding began performing live in clubs in Portland as a teenager, securing her first gig at 15 years old in a blues club, when she could play only one line on bass. One of the seasoned musicians that she played with on her first night invited Spalding to join the band’s rehearsals to help her learn, which soon grew into regular performances spanning for almost a year.

By age 20, shortly after finishing college, Spalding was asked to teach music at Berklee College of Music, becoming one of the youngest instructors in the institution’s history. As a teacher, Spalding “tries to help her students focus their practice through a practice journal, which can help them recognize their strengths and what they need to pursue.” Her debut album, Junjo, was released in April, 2006, by Ayva Music.

In November, 2011, Spalding won jazz artist of the year at the Boston Music AwardsShe collaborated with Tineke Postma on the track Leave Me a Place Underground from the album The Dawn of Light. She also collaborated with Terri Lyne Carrington on the album The Mosaic Project, where she features on the track Crayola. Spalding also sang a duet with Nicholas Payton on the track Freesia from the 2011 album Bitches of Renaissance. 

On her personal website, she uniquely and humbly describes herself as the following:

“Esperanza Spalding is typically referred to as a bassist, vocalist and composer. However like most organism growing in response to their environment, Esperanza is emerging into something she does not yet understand, nor is able to clarify through reference or language.”

Radio Song (2012)

The song Radio Song was one of twelve tracks on Spalding’s 2012 album Radio Music Society. John Bungey of The Times noted the album’s “journey through soul, gospel, balladry and big-band swing,” and complimented Spalding’s “light, airy voice.”

The song is happy and upbeat, and has an “out with the old, in with the new” attitude. Spalding refers to the common occurrence of turning on the radio and there being the “same old stuff that makes you yawn” playing. In a way, her unique sound and focus on jazz goes against the grain of generic pop music of today.

Right now you need it, driving yourself through the hard times
Traffic won’t speed up, so you turn the radio on
But it’s the same old stuff that makes you yawn

Well somehow he feels it and the DJ here at the station
Sends sweet salvation, when he starts to play this song
Now you can’t help singin’ along, even though you never heard it
You keep singin’ it wrong

Heaven in Pennies (2017)

The song Heaven in Pennies is one of 10 tracks on Spalding’s two-disc album Exposure from 2017. With an aim to finish ten songs for this project, Spalding started broadcasting the writing, arranging, and recording of Exposure at 9 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2017, via Facebook Live for 77 hours straight. The live stream took place at NRG Recording Studios, and included breaks for sleeping and eating.

Spalding chose to do the experiment in 77 hours because she was once told by a reverend that “seven is a divine number. It’s the number of completion. It represents the earthly culmination of a divine thought,” and she enjoyed that sentiment. Accordingly, the song has many religious undertones, and reads very poetically:

Open the door to your steeple
It’s empty where people would gladly
Give a coin to restore your rosy window panes
Broken and boarded up

Now come down and open your mind
Start searching the ground for pennies
We all wish for our riches on high
And still search the ground for pennies

References: “Esperanza Spalding.” 2020,