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.”