Tuesday, March 23, 2010

delanceyplace.com 3/23/10 - esperanza spalding

In today's excerpt - twenty-six year old jazz phenomenon Esperanza Spalding, whose
brisk-selling major-label debut "Esperanza" - by turns ebullient and reflective
- lays forth her gifts as a composer, bassist, and singer:
"Spalding was born in 1984 in Portland, Oregon, to a single mother
of African-American, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic ancestry.
Spalding spent her childhood, with her mother and brother, who is seven years her
senior, in the King neighborhood of northeast Portland. ... Spalding's mother worked
several jobs - carpenter, security guard, dish-washer, day-care worker - but there
was never enough money. The family
was reduced to near-homelessness many times, and on at least one occasion was forced
to live in the attic of a friend.
"Yet Spalding says she was largely unaware of the difficulty of
their situation. 'You can grow up with literally nothing and you don't suffer if
you know you're loved and valued,' she told me. 'A lot of people I grew up
with, by the time they were eight they were completely disillusioned with the
world. They already felt this system is wrecked and it's hopeless.' Spalding's
mother, convinced that the local public schools fostered such disillusionment, removed
her in the middle of fifth grade and successfully applied to
have her homeschooled. Because her mother worked full time, Esperanza
effectively educated herself from sixth grade through eighth, checking books
out of the library, completing lesson plans, and taking tests. 'We had to do
that, legally,' she said, 'so my mom could keep 'homeschooling' - quote unquote.'
"Her mother had a piano in the apartment, and when Spalding
was four she heard her struggling with a simple piece by Beethoven. Afterward, Spalding
climbed onto the bench and played the piece by ear. Soon she was writing her own
songs on the piano. When she had a completed melody, her mother said, 'she'd arrange
it in every style of music you could imagine, from bluegrass to classical to jazz.
She'd call me over, and say, 'Look, I can play it this way. And I can play it this
way, and then I can play it this way and this way."
"At the age of five, she saw Yo-Yo Ma play cello on 'Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood' and told her mother she wanted to do that. Her mother had
enrolled her in a free community-band program that offered loans of donated
used instruments, but there were no cellos available. There was a violin,
which Spalding took up. Though lax about practicing (for several years, she
feigned sight-reading and learned her parts by ear), she earned a spot in an
advanced youth orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, and by
fifteen was the orchestra's concertmaster. She also earned a full scholarship to
the Northwest Academy, a private arts high school in downtown Portland.
There she caught the attention of Brian Rose, who taught jazz-improv classes
and electronic music. Rose recalls once coming upon her when she was writing
out a symphonic score for strings and horns while listening, on headphones,
to Latin music. 'I said, 'You can't do that!' ' Rose recalls. 'She said, 'Oh, the
stuff I'm writing is all in my head. I don't need to hear it - I already know
what to write.' ' "
John Colapinto, "New Note," The New Yorker, Mar 15, 2010, pp. 34-35.


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