Esperanza Spalding says she was "always an extreme child; super fiercely independent."
She grew up in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Portland, Ore., the precocious daughter of a woman who did labor organizing for Cesar Chavez while working as everything from a baker to a construction worker. It runs in the family.
Spalding, who plays the upright bass as well as being a talented vocalist, is one of the most promising young jazz artists to come down the pike in some time. She may have the Berklee School of Music pedigree, but it was clear early on that what really matters is simply that she has a gift.
By the age of 15, she had already picked up several instruments and developed enough skill to not only begin playing gigs but be named concertmaster of the Oregon Chamber Music Society as a violinist.
"My mom was very resourceful and she found programs to get me into where I could play to get the actual experience with the instruments. And once I was in those, I had to at least learn how to play what the orchestra was playing," Spalding told Pollstar.
"Music was a lot like drawing and art to me. It was fun. I’d get home and had the materials there. My mom was a carpenter and she’d bring home various pieces of wood and things from buildings she was helping to construct, and we’d just build stuff, and make pictures and play music. That was like our toys and our television."
Spalding also found she preferred the company of older friends who played music and, unlike most teenagers, found herself getting immersed in jazz.
"I’ve always found people to be friends who were older than me," she explained. "When I first got into the bass, it wasn’t to get into jazz; it was just to play the instrument."
She found that it wasn’t enough to just know how to play the instrument, she needed to understand it and the music it produces. Another young jazz bassist she studied with at Berklee introduced her to other players.
"He turned me on to all his friends who were into it, and that was probably when I got into jazz and started to hang out," Spalding said, laughing. "It’s fun to hang, and at the hang you can listen to them all playing. For me, it was more like a social setting than me just sitting in my house listening to archaic music by myself.
"I don’t think anybody that age would have found that very intriguing, at least nobody from my musical background and personal taste. I don’t think I would have been able to get into it without that community that was into it, that made it fun."
Her circle of friends and admirers grew to include Joe Lozano, an artist and Berklee teacher whose quartet she eventually joined. But it was her manager, Daniel Florestano of Montuno Management in Barcelona, Spain, who convinced Scott Southard at International Music Network, to sign the young prodigy. Coincidentally, Southard – whose office is near Berklee – is also Lozano’s manager.
What a surprise to find that she was here at Berklee and she’s got this amazing story and she’s playing in the band of one of the artists I manage," Southard told . "So it took all the way to Barcelona and back to Boston for me to figure it out. But happily for the last couple of years, Esperanza and IMN have been working to get to the place that we’re at today."
‘Esperanza’, Spalding’s fourth album and second with Concord Music Group, was released May 20th and is expected to be a breakout for her. She’ll be making international television appearances in June, including "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," and performing some North American club and festival dates that will introduce her to new audiences.
Spalding, with her range of talent and youthful exuberance, is a natural for wider exposure than the traditional jazz circuit, and Southard says she will be expanding into alternative instrumental and adult contemporary markets.
"Our strategy for touring is we’re not just going to the straight up, old line jazz festivals and cultural center gigs," Southard said. "We intend to put Esperanza in a variety of places. You’ll see this girl’s pop career emerge. Over the next 12 to 18 months, we’re going to take a lot of chances putting her into opening slots for pop groups."
With the help of Southard and Florestano, as well as that independent streak she brings to the table, Spalding is able to take advantage of a unique time.
"We’re at a transitioning time in the music industry where a lot of new music is getting a chance to be heard and be seen," Southard said. "Esperanza is absolutely the perfect artist at this time because her appeal is across genres and across generations and she’s got that engaging personality.
"It’s not just about the music that’s onstage but she’s actively connected to her audience. I think its time for that kind of music and thankfully, as the music and entertainment industry overall is evolving, we have these kinds of artists coming up."