Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

"I Know You Know": Esperanza Spalding's Hybrid, Intertextual, Multilingual, Relevant Jazz Aesthetic

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

"I Know You Know": Esperanza Spalding's Hybrid, Intertextual, Multilingual, Relevant Jazz Aesthetic

Article excerpt

Esperanza Spalding's receipt of the 2011 Grammy Award for Best New Artist was both historic and controversial not only because it marked the first time that a jazz artist was accorded that particular honor but because it signaled possibilities for new directions and a "re-contextualization" of the jazz aesthetic with an emphasis on vocal performance, radical genre hybridity, multilingualism, intertextuality, the marketability of women artists, and the return of socially relevant discourse in American music. There is no doubt that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences sought to honor Spalding's seventy weeks on the Billboard charts for her eponymous 2008 sophomore effort; the rise of her fourth album, Radio Music Society (Heads Up), to top five on the 2012 Billboard Jazz charts; her mainstream crossover appeal that resulted in an advertising spot with Banana Republic; and her 2009 performance for President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. The Academy may have also stumbled across the birth of a new jazz idiom that would reject traditional gender hierarchies and corporate-influenced genre boundaries in its embrace of an open and ever-expansive music that could once again be truly relevant to a broad diversity of audiences. The irony is that this would happen in the midst of jazz music's ever-declining share of commercial music CD sales and internet downloads as well as apocalyptic debates within the jazz world about the future survivability of the idiom. Many of the jazz cognoscenti would completely miss the moment. It turns out that while jazz critics and scholars have been waiting for the second coming of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, a powerful resurgence of discursively relevant, popular jazz has been happening at the intersection of women's performance, hybridity, multilingualism, and intertextuality. It is precisely in this location that Esperanza Spalding and the New Jazz are emerging.

Esperanza Spalding's critical and commercial accomplishments beg a reconsideration of the contemporary crisis and rumored "death" of jazz. Specifically, what role can women's jazz performance, radical genre hybridity, multilingualism, intertextuality, and discursive relevance serve in an aesthetic and commercial renaissance of the jazz aesthetic? I want to build a theory from what artist/composer and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor Jason Moran has called "re-contextualization" and his suggestion of the infinite possibilities of jazz as an umbrella aesthetic for the radical hybridization of all musical genres and the endless intertextual relationships of music and other art forms. And, finally, I want to foreground women's vocal jazz as a fundamental axis of "re-contextualization," a significant broadening of the definition of jazz music, and communication of the social/cultural relevance of the aesthetic.

Esperanza Spalding's burgeoning career is the most logical place to begin such an inquiry because her career is profoundly linked to contemporary discursive formations of the cultural hybridization of race and gender in a nation experiencing significant demographic shifts and calling into question the assumptions of American race, class, gender, and sexual identity politics. Her career has deep roots in the history of socially relevant woman-centered vocal jazz and blues music that runs through Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Cassandra Wilson to name just a few. Spalding clearly has peers at the vanguard of "re-contextualized" jazz music including, but not limited to Terri Lyn Carrington, The Robert Glasper Experiment, Jason Moran, Madeleine Peyroux, and Gretchen Parlato. What sets Esperanza Spalding apart as an avatar of a new and re-contextualized jazz music is her ability (1) to significantly broaden the definition of jazz music and advance it as commercially viable without sacrificing its core aesthetic integrity and improvisational prerogatives; (2) to deconstruct gender bias and the concomitant second class status of vocal jazz performance within the jazz world; (3) to deconstruct performatively the conflation of aesthetics and racial authenticity and advance an understanding of the radically hybrid origins and future of the jazz aesthetic; and (4) to re-contextualize seemingly disparate musical genres to suggest new communities of musicians and listeners that affirmatively transcend traditional social/cultural boundaries. …

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