Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding
Country:United States Of America


Early Life and Education

Spalding grew up in Portland, Oregon, in a neighborhood she herself describes as "ghetto" and "pretty scary." Her mother, who raised her as a single parent, was an independent, industrious woman. She shared Spalding's interest in music, having nearly become a touring singer herself. But while Spalding cites her mother as a powerful influence who encouraged her musical expansion, she attributes her inspiration for pursuing a life to watching classical cellist Yo Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when she was four.

By the time Spalding was five, she had taught herself to play the violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Spalding stayed with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon until she was fifteen and left as concertmaster. Due to a lengthy illness when she was child, Spalding spent much of her elementary school years being homeschooled, but also found the opportunity to pick up instruction in music by listening to her mother's college teacher instruct her in guitar. According to Spalding, when she was about 8 her mother briefly studied jazz guitar in college; Spalding says, "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 also played oboe and clarinet before in high school discovering the bass.

Spalding discovers the bass

Spalding had intended to play cello, but discovered the bass during a one year stint at age 14 in a prestigious high school to which she had won a scholarship. The school was not a good fit, but the bass was. When asked in 2008 why she plays the bass instead of some other instrument, Spalding said that it wasn't a choice, but the bass "had it’s own arc" and resonated with her. Spalding says that for her discovering the bass was like "waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker." By the time she randomly picked up the bass in music class and began experimenting with it, she had grown bored with her other instruments. Her band teacher showed her a blues line for the bass which she later used to secure her first gig. After that, she went in to play the bass daily and gradually fell in love.

Singing with Noise for Pretend

When she was 15 or 16 years old, Spalding started writing lyrics for music for the local indie rock/pop group Noise for Pretend, touching on any topic that came to mind. Although she had taken a few private voice lessons which taught her how to protect her voice, her primary singing experience had come from "singing in the shower", she said, before she started performing vocals for Noise for Pretend. Her desire to perform live evolved naturally out of the compositional process, when she would sing and play simultaneously to see how melody and voice fit together, but she acknowledges that performing both roles can be challenging. In a 2008 interview, she said, "What can be difficult is being a singer, in the sense that you are engaged with the audience, and really responsible for emoting, and getting into the lyrics, melody, etc and being an effective bassist/band leader."


Spalding left high school at 16 and after completing her GED enrolled on a music scholarship in the music program at Portland State University, where she remembers being "the youngest bass player in the program." Although she lacked the training of her fellow students, she feels that her teachers nevertheless recognized her talent. She decided to instead apply to Berklee on the encouragement of her bass teacher and did well enough in her audition to receive a full scholarship. In spite of the scholarship, Spalding found it a challenge meeting living expenses, so her friends arranged a benefit concert that paid her air fare and a little extra.

But the money didn't last long, and being at Berklee wasn't always easy for Spalding, who had to carry her bass two miles to a train station as part of long commute. Broke and exhausted, she considered leaving music and entering political science, a move jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny discouraged, telling Spalding she had "the 'X Factor'" and could make it if she applied herself.


Spalding had begun performing live in clubs in Portland, Oregon as a teenager, securing her first gig at 15 in a blues club when she could only play one line on bass. One of the seasoned musicians with which she played that first night invited her to join the band's rehearsals "so she could actually learn something", and her rehearsals soon grew into regular performances spanning almost a year. According to Spalding, it was a chance for her to stretch as a musician, reaching and growing beyond her experience. Her early contact with these "phenomenal resources", as she calls the musicians who played with her, fostered her sense of rhythm and helped nurture her interest in her instrument.

Patti Austin hired Spalding to tour with her internationally after Spalding's first semester at Berklee, where Spalding supported the singer on the Ella Fitzgerald tribute tour "For Ella". In 2008, Spalding recalled the tour as educational, helping her learn to accompany a vocalist and also how to sustain energy and interest playing the same material nightly. She would rejoin Austin periodically for three years.

Also while at Berklee, Spalding studied under saxophonist Joe Lovano before eventually touring with him. They began as a trio, expanding into a quartet before joining quintet US5 and traveling across the United States from New York to California.


Almost immediately after graduation from college, in 2005, Spalding was hired by Berklee College of Music, becoming one of the youngest professors 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. As of 2008, she was also in the process of developing several courses for students at Berklee, including one that focuses "on transcribing as a tool for learning harmony and theory".

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