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Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding
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Esperanza Spalding Interview

Singer, Songwriter and Jazz Bassist

September 13, 2014
San Francisco, California

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  Esperanza Spalding

Can you tell us about the Portland, Oregon of your youth?

Esperanza Spalding: It's very different than what you see on Portlandia, even though I love Portlandia. My Portland was a very interesting mix of factors and universes actually.

I grew up in a very difficult neighborhood. There was a lot of crime and a lot of addiction problems and just people who didn't have a lot of options in life. So my family grew up in that neighborhood. And somehow, at a really early age, I got connected to these music programs. One of them was called the Culture Recreation Band, which was put together by these grown jazz musicians who had this idea that they could help kids in the neighborhood stay out of trouble if they could have a horn in their hand and be basically held accountable to show up every week at this place and know what they were supposed to know. So these were mostly kids from my neighborhood, you know, from similar circumstances. On the other hand, I got involved in this program called the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, which was run by two incredible women, Hazel DeLorenzo and Dorothy McCormick, who really singlehandedly built this organization that provided free instruments and next-to-free classes, summer classes, and weekly orchestra rehearsal for children and older people and adults to keep alive the torch of chamber music, of live chamber music. So that was my little world in music. And wow, I of course couldn't fathom how unique that environment was! I couldn't fathom how difficult it is for working adults to keep an organization like either of those alive and floating and thriving and actually accessible to the kids who need it most. I mean, every kid needs and deserves access to music, but there really was no other option for a lot of the kids who were in this Culture Recreation Band. And wow, that was a really amazing -- now I realize -- way to grow up. And I got into music when I was five. So I always was around this world of grownups making miraculous things happen, and thinking that was just normal. And I guess because music is the thing that has remained the same since that time in my life, what I remember most from that time of my life in Portland are those individuals in these programs, teaching these programs, running these programs.

What was your first attraction to music? Do you remember being really struck by a musical experience?

Esperanza Spalding: The first musical experience that I really remember being struck by I actually hated, because it was bagpipes at the elementary school for some celebration. Now I appreciate bagpipes, but then, to my little vulnerable new virgin ears, the sound was like ahh! Just to be honest. That was my first musical experience that I remember being very impacted by. On the other hand, I remember hearing Yo-Yo Ma on television, on public television, and on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and I don't think I had ever heard any sound like that before, not with the imagery, not with the visuals of this young-looking guy doing this thing that seemed just -- I just didn't have any reference for it. It just was like the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. And right then and there I decided I wanted to do -- whatever that is -- I want to do that. And what I don't consciously remember, but now I know, is that in the same episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood -- it was apparently an episode all about music, music, music, music. So when they went to the next segment there was a woman playing acoustic bass, and the other female character was dressed as an acoustic bass. But I don't remember seeing that as a kid, but I must have. So I thought, until I saw a rerun of that episode, that it was purely by chance I was so drawn to the bass, but maybe it was some sort of like subliminal seed that was planted. And those are the two seminal turning points in my life, seminal moments, being exposed to those two instruments.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Do you remember what Yo-Yo Ma was playing?

Esperanza Spalding: One of the Bach cello suites. I don't remember which, but one of the J.S. Bach cello suites.

What music did you hear in the home? Was your mom musical?

Esperanza Spalding: Yeah. We had a Harry Belafonte Christmas album, and a Stevie Wonder Christmas album, and some Roland Hayes records, and I was allowed to listen to the classical station or the oldies station. I wasn't interested in the jazz station, although I probably could listen to that. In my early years that was the music I remember hearing, asking my mom to keep out the Harry Belafonte and Stevie Wonder records way beyond and way before Christmas. The gospel sound I didn't think I liked very much, but I did. I didn't like church when I was a kid, and it reminded me of church, so "Oh, turn it off." But I actually really loved Roland Hayes. We had a piano in the house that I would play all the time and write songs. I would steal songs from the radio and pretend like I wrote them. That was kind of the musical scene, you know.

Did your mom make up songs too?

Esperanza Spalding: Oh, yeah. Very musical. My mom is very, very musical. So, she would just make up these incidental -- I guess you could say incidental music, but it was prominent so it wasn't just incidental. So, you know, maybe you -- like you'd scratch yourself -- "I have a scratch right here..." she'd be like, "Oh you don't need to cry, 'cause your mama is by. Your mama who loves you and will never, ever leave you." And she'd just come up with these. I remember that one. In the morning there'd be a song. And she just would kind of turn any phrase -- everyone in my family tends to talk to ourselves a lot -- so she would just turn like a little thing she was saying to herself into a song, and then somebody would catch it and be like -- "You know you should stop..." Very musical. Very, very, very musical. And completely hands-off in an interesting way around my musical obsessions. So hands-on in terms of connecting me with great teachers and organizations that we could access, but then totally hands-off. She didn't like make me practice every day or anything. I don't know what to say about that approach. It's really interesting, because she's so musical and she loves music so much, and she had this dream of being a musician, but she didn't impose it or make resistance to me exploring really anything, which is interesting.

I think the way our parents approach our passion affects greatly the way we approach our passion. And I think the resistance can be a really powerful tool too. On the other hand, I think when parents can be too much hands-on, it can be stifling, because it really -- it's like I think I've heard this expression that, "You can't be taught anything. You have to learn it yourself." Like people can guide you in the right direction and show you options, but only the individual can learn what it is to be learned. And in music, that statement I think is profoundly true, because it really is your partner for life. I think, even at a young age, it's really important to develop your own relationship to the study of music, to the practice, to the ingestion of this entity that will be what you live and breathe and love and hate and cry about and laugh about for the rest of your life. So I feel really grateful that I was kind of allowed to develop my own special relationship to the art form and then, of course, be surrounded by good, great, and not-so-great teachers also. It's kind of interesting.

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