Esperanza Spalding: Wise Beyond Her Ears

The conversation with Esperanza Spalding, brought to us by Portland’s Jazz Festival took place at the Portland Center for Performing Arts, in a big gray room with no ceiling. Two empty chairs sat on stage, one for our featured guest and one for Tim DuRoche, a familiar figure in the Portland arts & culture scene.

“Audrey Goldfarb is everywhere,” he said, when he spotted me hanging my coat on the rack. Good seeing you again too, Tim.

In the center of the front row, between an man, who looked about 65, and an older woman with an impressive camera, there was a lone empty seat… Could it be?

“Is this seat taken?” It wasn’t! “That explains why it has my name written all over it!”

No one seemed to be listening, but I didn’t care, thrilled to have one of the best seats in the house. Esperanza arrived on schedule, her slender frame under a great mane of hair. DuRoche took the stage. There would be no photographs or any recording devices allowed – excepting the staff photographer, directly to my left. (The entire conversation was recorded. It’s available here.)

Tim asked the audience playfully, “You all know why you’re here, right?”

She hardly needed introduction. Without delay, he brought Esperanza to the stage. In pinstripe pants, a pale gray blouse under a vest, adorned with a rose-colored scarf and some well-loved red leather boots, she was a picture of Portland’s nonchalant style. I especially admired her big red sparkling ring. It reminded me of the lucky ring I found in Ecuador…

I enjoyed the contrast between her square jaw and the roundness of her hair, thinking she would be fun to paint… Couldn’t help but smile at the visual image brought to mind when Tim (after listing her recent accomplishments) asked, “Is your head spinning?”

She’s performed for President Obama four times. She’s been in several magazines, she played at the BET Awards, she’s featured in a Banana Republic ad campaign and – as we’ve all heard by now – she just won a Grammy for best new artist of the year (much to the horrid dismay of Justin Bieber fans)!

Yet miraculously, her head remains well-attached to the rest of her body.

She explained, “there are also many days between those activities, those bright shining gems of events,” when life returns to normalcy. One special time that wasn’t mentioned, she described, was when she got to play with her ultimate heroes, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hanckock & Wayne Shorter.

“That was the highlight of my life.”

For Esperanza, these outstanding events may seem “auspicious on a superficial plane,” but they do have an undeniable shaping effect on a person’s ensuing career as well as their artistic identity.

Many people in the music world have also contributed to who she is today.  A man named Papa Joe was one of them.

“There are few people you meet that are as good as you hope they are. He is.”

Prince is another key influence. It was he who invited her to perform at the BET awards.

“A real prince – he is an extraordinary human being. All the things we see in performance are really him. His mastery of the music is obvious.  He works 21 hours a day.” And he’s quite generous, always looking for other talented musicians to bring into the light.

“He’s like the Wizard of Oz… but for real.”

Home Grown Goodness

Born in Portland Oregon, Esperanza Spalding is what Tim calls “an example of what happens when a community cares for it’s natural resources.” She spoke for a few minutes about the local organizations that, along with an extensive list of brilliant individuals, nurtured her from an early age:

She started with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, led (at the time) by two women named Hazel and Dorothy.

“One of them was elderly and the other was definitely older than middle age,” said Esperanza, choosing her words with care.  She spent 10 years in the program, which offers scholarships to students who can’t afford professional instruction and instruments.

Then she joined the Cultural Recreation Band, founded in 1993 by Greg McKelvey.  Designed for inner city middle school and high school students, Esperanza said, “it was intense. And that’s how it should be.” The objective, “making sure this music was getting in our bones,” was accomplished by teaching responsibility through personal accountability.

In addition, Esperanza spent two summers with the Mel Brown Jazz Camp, which provides kids with a chance to learn from many of Oregon’s best Jazz artists.

Ron Steen is another example of someone who saw a bright spark of talent, worth investing in. He’d have her over for practice jams, never letting her leave without a stack of homework, more albums to listen to. Music to absorb.

Ken Baldwin, a major influence, enticed her by offering free lessons in exchange for practice…  Creative incentives like these kept her coming back for more.

The tireless discipline and diligence expended by so many contributing members of the local music community gave Esperanza a fully-loaded tool-belt, to forge her way into the music scene.

Art for Life

“How important are the arts in education?’ Tim asked.

“Most important. How important is water?” Engaging in the creative arts is “learning how to assimilate information and use it in a meaningful way.”

At home, her mother had a leading role, “providing support, creating opportunities, encouraging any random endeavor” and helping Esperanza find resources wherever possible. She credits her mother for giving her the freedom that comes from her deeply instilled value set.

Being home-schooled, Esperanza spoke about the ups and downs of the experience.  Mostly it was positive. For example, once lessons were learned, there was lots of time for other sorts of activities. She developed her own ways of structuring material, planning and self-checking, skills that have significant real-world value. On the downside, being accustomed to self-directed studies made the adjustment to typical college life a bit of a challenge.

Porgy & Bess

As a kid, said Esperanza, “I hated Jazz.” One day, she was given an album with Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong, performing Porgy & Bess. Nobody told her it what it was, and she listened to it over and over again. So began her love affair with Jazz.

This woman, as beautiful as she is, is just as lovely to listen to as she is to watch. Her voice, her laughter – even her groans – were pleasing.

Musical Recommendations

Tim wanted to know, “What are you listening to right now?  Who excites you?”

She rattled off a list of her current faves, as well as a few who are relatively new to the music scene:

– Music for the 5th World, by Jack DeJohnette

– Live in Copenhagen

– Trombone Shorty

– Erin Goldberg, live with Kurt Rosenmichael

– King (two sisters and a third woman, out of LA)

– Ryan Cross, an acoustic/R’n’B/rock artist

– Becca Stevens, “really something else”

Next, Tim brought up a quote where Esperanza had mentioned Madonna and Ornett Coleman as inspiration. She had to pause for a moment, pointing out that the quote was completely out of context.

With Madonna, it’s the “I don’t care who gives a fuck, I’m gonna do what I wanna do” attitude she appreciates, because “it allows her the freedom to evolve,” often triggering new steps in evolution for the rest of the music scene.

Ornett Coleman, someone who worked as a carpenter in order to survive while he spent the rest of his life making music, is idolized by Esperanza because of his dedication, doing whatever it took to fulfill his passion for music.

Q & A

The first man to ask a question had been sitting near me in the front row. He’d just been accepted to Berkley, and since she was a professor there, he wanted her advice.

It’s an amazing place, she said, “a crossroads where people with all different kinds of music background and philosophy come together… concentrated music, 24 hours a day.”  Esperanza advised him not to get discouraged by the things that will inevitably come into his way.

She urged him to “take advantage of everything that’s there.”

One man wanted to know what she thought about people recording her, for posterity. Adamant about his personal feelings on the subject, he didn’t seem to accept her lack of a straight answer.

“Music is a living art,” she said, “like storytelling.” Music came a long way, passed down from person to person throughout history, before recording devices were commonplace. She isn’t the least bit worried that some of her performances (without dutiful recording) may be lost in the fray.

The man couldn’t seem to let it go. He had recorded her performance at City Hall the previous day, he wanted (but wasn’t permitted) to record her conversation there, and even more, he wanted to record her (sold out) performance at Jazz Fest this weekend.  After several persistent attempts to rephrase his desire, he was politely shut down.

One man asked, “How can I get my 16-year old son to practice?”

“I don’t think there’s anything you can say,” she explained thoughtfully, that will make him want to practice. “Find out what inspires him, find ways to expose him to inspiring music.”

“There’s this glorified image of someone who is successful, but often no attention given to the method, time and commitment required” in getting there. Regarding young people and practice, they often overlook the physical and timely investment it takes to cultivate natural talent into something truly magnificent. Quoting the late great Bill Evans, Esperanza said, “Talent is cheap – most talents treat themselves cheaply.”

This failure is from the utter disillusionment about what playing music means. Kids don’t want to practice? You tell them, “Stop playing.”

The point is, if you’re going to do music, you have to do it right.

At times, it felt like Esperanza was talking just to me. Her message was powerful: artistic success requires not only dedicated work on behalf of the individual, but also by teachers who, upon recognizing the seeds of talent, are forever there to “keep the fire under your ass.” It was only a little embarrassing when tears started popping out of my eyes, running in long, cool streams down my face. This young woman has a rare opportunity to create a profound impact on the world. How fortunate, her path brought her into mine…

Leaving the building, I reconnected with my friend Gabriel (who was too late for prime seating acquisition). We agreed that Esperanza Spading was lovely, that this had been an excellent choice of activities to start our night.

Embraced by a chilly breeze as we headed towards his car, we had gotten only a few steps outside the building when, just ahead, Esperanza appeared, with several of her handlers, going for the back entrance. There was no time to delay – I dashed ahead, slipping in the door just before it closed.

“Esperanza,” I said. She paused, of course recognizing me, the silly weeping note-taker from the front row. Thanked her for sharing her story. Gave her my card, inviting her to check out the art, writing, photography, as well as the evenings full review.

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