All That Jazz

By Pesta, Abigail | Newsweek, February 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

All That Jazz


Pesta, Abigail, Newsweek


Byline: Abigail Pesta

No TV, no texting--and she goes to bed on time. It's no surprise Esperanza Spalding remains one of the hardest-working young musicians in years.

It's one of the coldest days of the year in Manhattan, with icy winds keeping most people indoors, but not Esperanza Spalding. The 27-year-old jazz artist is racing all over town. She spent the morning at a photo shoot for DownBeat magazine. Now she's heading to a recording studio to fine-tune her next album. Tonight she'll perform back-to-back sets at the Village Vanguard, the historic jazz club. But right now she's taking a moment to grab a grilled-cheese sandwich at a cafe.

"I mean, you have to eat," she says, as if she needs an excuse to sit still. Spalding doesn't waste much time. She goes to bed early, gets up early, and practices the bass--her instrument of choice--every day. She rarely tweets, texts, or watches TV. "I want to," she says, laughing. "I feel so out of the loop. I really admire people who work so much and still find the time to do that--they're more bad-ass than me." Still, her diligence pays. Since winning the Grammy for Best New Artist last year--besting Justin Bieber and infuriating his fans--she has performed 120 shows, hitting 15 countries and 50 U.S. cities. A new album, Radio Music Society, comes out next month.

She's eager to hear the mix session for that album this afternoon, an indication of her hands-on approach. The engineer is a "genius," she says. "But this is the last step where you make sure the balance of all the instruments is at a place where the music really comes through. I like to be a part of that." The album is her fourth, and its 11 tunes are accompanied by short films, shot in New York, Spain, and Oregon.

Spalding became famous the old-fashioned way: hard work. No reality shows, no American Idol, no manufactured scandals involving naughty snapshots. She grew up in a gang-ridden corner of Portland, Ore., where a neighborhood child died when a stray bullet flew through a window. As a 5-year-old, she began playing in a community band; by the time she was 15, she was the concertmaster for an Oregon youth orchestra, with a scholarship to a private arts high school. At 20, she graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

She credits her mother, a single parent, with her early interest in the arts, recalling childhood evenings together spent reading books like The Little Prince, and later the biography of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. …

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