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Esperanza Spalding: All That Jazz by Questlove

Esperanza Spalding is no longer jazz’s best-kept secret, with a Grammy for Best New Artist added to her accolade collection. But has mainstream acclaim turned up the heat on the nimble-fingered upright bassist?

Interview by ?uestlove // Photography by Josh DeHonney // Styling by Darius Baptist // Makeup by Jackie Sanchez/Koh Gen Do // Hair products provided by MIZANI True Textures // Location courtesy of GunBar


Following her win for Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards, jazz musician Esperanza Spalding almost gave into temptation to capitalize on the victory. The jazz maestro, known for her masterful abilities on the upright bass and milky vocals (as well as her untamed coif), was convinced that her fourth studio album, Radio Music Society, should be geared towards pop audiences, but it took working with just the right people to help her realize that she needed to stay true to herself, making casual, warm music that didn’t buckle to mainstream pressure.

The resulting album, which follows 2010’s Chamber Music Society, is a reflection of where Spalding stands in her career: joyous, soulful and as sharp as ever. YRB paired one of her earliest supporters, The Roots’ bandleader ?uestlove, to grill her about everything from beating out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist trophy to what it means to be operating at the forefront of mainstream consciousness.

?uestlove: First, let me say congratulations on your continuing journey – most people say success, but I feel every day is a new level for you… After all was said and done [on your first album], did you feel the need to do a 180 and try new ideas? What was the direction of this album? Did you feel you accomplished what you wanted to do with Chamber and now there’s a new direction you wanted to go in? What did you want to challenge this time around?

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Esperanza: Well, actually, I conceived Chamber Music Society and Radio Music Society at the same time. I thought of them as sort of diametric opposite twins. Chamber Music Society was the introvert of the family, and the extroverted child was Radio Music Society, but they came from the same parent!

?uestlove: You’re able to flip the switch with that much ease, where you wear one hat one day and create one type of music, and the next day you wear another hat?

Esperanza: Well, this music has been a work in progress over the last three to four years. I mean, I’m not thinking, “Ok, now I’m in my Chamber Music vibe.” The compositions that ultimately ended up being on Chamber Music Society, they were sketches in varying states of being done. So then, as I finished each song, I put the polishing touches on it, really catering it to the Chamber Music Society sound – and the same thing with all the compositions that ended up on Radio Music Society. When I’m working on one individual song – I may have been working on Chamber Music Society yesterday – but it’s like I’m imagining a sound or intention of the record, so then in the detail polishing for that given song, I’m directing it towards the overall sound of the record.

?uestlove: So I gotta say, the first time I ever won a Grammy I thought it was by fluke and I kinda quickly accepted it before they had a recount to realize that Dr. Dre and Eminem deserve this award instead of The Roots… So I’ve never really enjoyed that moment, but last year, even though I won three times, I’ll say my happiest moment was actually watching you win Best New Artist. I was literally in the aisle and dancing – I was a dancing fool in my chair as if it was my award. Has life been much different now that you’ve won Best New Artist? Do you feel like, oh I gotta braid my hair now and wear sunglasses?

Esperanza: [Laughs] No, life has not changed. You know, when you said you feel like you couldn’t enjoy the Grammy because it seemed like a fluke, in my mind I’m really grateful because a lot of people thought of me – or [even if] other people canceled each other out so I got it by default, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, people were thinking of me, so I’m grateful, and I’m grateful for all the positive support that came afterwards. People were so happy that’s what went down. I just think it’s not necessarily cause for celebration because I think the fact that it’s the first time a jazz musician is being acknowledged really should open the door to a big dialogue where we’re asking why the hell is that, because it’s not like there’s any lack of creative music happening. So why the hell is it that in this public arena the music – I mean, it’s not just jazz, it’s also all kinds of other music that are really integral to the overall music identity of this country – is not being acknowledged in that realm. It’s like really great [that I won], and now there’s a dialogue that needs to continue and I think there’s a lot of questions that should be asked. And right after that win, NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) cut all these categories that non-pop musicians often are acknowledged in. So it’s like the doors opened to the conversation and then two seconds later they’re like, by the way, you aren’t gonna be acknowledged here anymore. ‘Cause as we know, when there’s less categories everybody gets lumped together and someone gets cut out… What is stopping all this beautiful music that’s out here and evolving and thriving and doing good in the world from being appreciated and acknowledged and shared in that public arena? ‘Cause theoretically it’s not a popularity contest, right?… So maybe the spotlight allows me a voice to speak about these things.

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?uestlove: With your upcoming album and also with the surprising showing and love for Robert Glasper, because I feel as though really not since the early ‘80s and Miles Davis has the jazz establishment seen such creativity – with the way that you’re pushing it, the way that Glasper’s pushing it and your respective peers inside that circle. Where do you personally feel jazz is headed? I mean, the fact that Robert Glasper can release a record in the top 10 of the pop charts – when he released it I thought, you know, it’ll be notable on the jazz charts – but the fact he’s still the fourth most popular album, you and him are really leading the [pack]. So how do you feel the direction of jazz is heading now?

Esperanza: I just want to point out that, while maybe Miles is who we think of when jazz was really popular music, it wasn’t just Miles. It takes thousands of practitioners of the craft all in their own sweet way plugging away at it and contributing to the fabric of the music for anybody to succeed in the music. I mean, there has to be a thriving, living massive entity of practitioners for anybody to exist. So my concern is that we would see a couple people doing well as like a victory for music; it’s not translatable, it doesn’t trickle down. Really, I think it’s a deeper systemic problem that we have to address. And so when a couple people are doing well it doesn’t necessarily mean the tide is turning; it can be an opportunity to open the dialogue where we can address some real fundamental problems with formatting and labels and marketing and stigmas and stereotypes that sort of reinforce themselves and don’t allow creative music, don’t allow fruitful, creative music to shine. It’s not about the genre, that’s the thing to understand. There’s nothing against jazz. It’s jazz and many other clients of music that if it doesn’t fit the formatting than it ain’t gonna see the light of day.

?uestlove: Do you feel now as though there’s still somewhat of a creative apartheid, if you will, in the genre? I’m not talking about mainstream things; I’m just talking about within your own world.

Esperanza: In my own world, what I see are audiences all over the world that really want to hear what people have to say. They want to hear new things, they want to hear old things, they want to hear quirky avant-garde things, they want to hear intellectual groovy things, they want to hear people who are freestyling, they want to hear where jazz and hip-hop conjoin, they want to hear everything, because ultimately, the listeners have a problem. A friend of mine once said, ‘People are much more open than they get credit for,’ but the marketing research that big labels do and the radio formatting rules [don’t show that]. It’s really resonant with what you’re exposed to, what is familiar to you… The cool thing about the young aspect is it’s not just young people trying to undo what their predecessors have done, it’s like young, middle-age and old all over the place creating incredible music that runs that gamut based in traditional to whole new cutting edge. And I think the point is, you can’t look for the next big name that’s gonna fill in the music, it really takes supporting new music. It takes a culture that appreciates the artistic process, that appreciates diversity, that appreciates the value of something even if you don’t quite understand it. And what I experience from the practitioners is this ever expanding, growing, creative nonstop expression of what quote unquote jazz music can mean.

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?uestlove: It’s so weird, I’m hearing the same issues and problems that you have in your world that are mirroring the same exact issues that I have in my world, which I guess goes to show me that it’s parallel everywhere.

Esperanza: Mmhmm – it’s the same world.

?uestlove: I do have to note that on this album you collaborated with one of my all-time heroes, Q-Tip. What was the process like? How did you guys first hook up?

Esperanza: Well, I was looking for someone to work on the record with and I thought, ok, I really need to focus on who I’m gonna reach out to that adds experience in a realm beyond jazz that would really want to jump on board and help. The next day, Casey Benjamin sent me a text saying can I give Q-Tip your number, he’s trying to get a hold of you. So I said, oh, that’s providential. So he called me and he said, ‘Hey, I’m working on this project and here’s the concept would you come be involved?’ I said, “Yes, maybe this sounds crazy, but I think we’re supposed to work together.” So I went over to his house and I brought my bass and we just started working on one of his tunes, and the process was really cool. I really liked the way he sort of directed us; I liked the way he was listening to the song and guiding its creation. He was very astute and creative and open-minded. So I said, “Hey man, would you work on my record with me?”

?uestlove: Is that hard for you? You kinda sat in the driver’s seat of Chamber Music and knew what direction it was going in. How hard is it to meet someone at the 50-yard line?

Esperanza: Well, actually, I didn’t co-produce Radio Music Society; I produced it myself. So I guess it’s not hard. I love having a co-producer; Gil Goldstein was the first co-producer I worked with… I was in a territory where I ultimately knew what I wanted to sound like but I didn’t know how to get there, so I was really confident that he was the one that was going to get me there. So with Radio Music Society, it’s a little different ‘cause I ended up producing it because I guess I never found that partner. It actually became a process of working with many different people, Terri Lyne Carrington, Q-Tip – you know, I really felt it was this process of everyone offering all they could in each individual song, but me really being the captain of the ship, so to speak.

?uestlove: So the buck still stops with you at the end of the day.

Esperanza: Yeah, yeah. Although, I feel like in working with a lot of people it becomes second nature that you throw an idea out and it’s like, ahh, no, no, no. [Laughs] You know, after that happens the first 2,500 times it’s just like, OK whatever, we’re all in this together. So at the end of the day, of course I was making the final decisions, but that’s also because I had already written and arranged all this music knowing exactly who was gonna play it and the concept. It’s like I had a really strong vision of the sound, and actually, what I realized working with Q-Tip was I didn’t want to make it a pop record – and I thought I did… I thought, this isn’t strong enough, and through the process and talking with Wayne Shorter and talking with Prince, I realized that, no I’m fooling myself, I’m not gonna be happy if I change my music. Like, the point is, can our music live on the radio if it’s just a matter of people being exposed to it?

?uestlove: So after you won Best New Artist, was there unspoken or spoken pressure to cash in on it…

Esperanza: [Laughs] They know I don’t respond well under pressure. Maybe there was, but they would never say it to me directly ‘cause they know me. I have a good working relationship with my manager and my label and they know me. I’m a very – my mom says – fiercely independent, rock hard-headed kind of person. So I’m really into taking constructive criticism and feedback from people that I really admire, but I don’t do well with pressure at all. ?uestlove: I know that there’s a certain magic in the air when you do shows at a smaller venue, but you have the marquee value and the ability to rise above most jazz artists that are stuck playing in a nightclub. How can you take something so intimate and quiet and beautiful, that you know is normally shared with an audience of 150-300 people, and translate that to bigger venues?

Esperanza: Actually, when we were in the middle of the Chamber Music Society sound and tour, Prince had me open for him a couple times, so I just put a band together that was appropriate for his stadium context and did a set that had that vibe. Because you know, intimate or not intimate, I guess as a performer you can modify the energy you send out to the room to the best of your ability. I don’t have Chaka Khan send-it-out-to-the-heavens power, but that’s the duty of diversity. You can modify the ensemble, the set list, the arrangement to fit the context. I wouldn’t do that with Chamber Music Society because the whole premise is intimacy, but the whole premise of Radio Music Society is the radio; it’s like blasting it out to an unknown audience, so it’s like a message in a bottle. You try to say everything’s that meaningful so they get the drift.

?uestlove: I think it’s notable and should be celebrated that you are indeed [one of ] the youngest professor to teach at Berklee School of Music. Do you feel some sort of leadership responsibility, at least in exposing younger people and females, in trying new stuff with instruments? I know it’s a state of emergency for everybody to learn how to play instruments.

Esperanza: It’s like a state of emergency for arts education in general… So what I think is that there are women that come along and offer an alternative to the dominant [image] – you know, it’s being rammed down our throats of what a black woman entertainer is. It’s not to pass judgment; it’s just there’s so much diversity and the fact that we’re bombarded with one image more than anything else has to make you scratch your head and go huh? That’s not really representative of the true diversity that’s out here. I have benefitted from the women before me, and just musicians before me, that have been the alternative to the dominant image, and I would like to continue to be a part of that alternative image. Although, that’s not the only driving force. When I see women in high school big bands, I know they’re not there because of me, but when you’re young you want to know there’s somebody out there that you identify with.

?uestlove: What normal every day stuff do you like to do? What’s a character trait of yours that lets us know you’re human?

Esperanza: If I could just sit with someone and shoot the shit I would much rather [do that]. Most of my life revolves around reading and writing and playing and listening. I like to watch movies… Here’s the thing – I’m not out here to be a superstar. I’m out here to have fun and create value. So when the elements that circulate around career building, the stuff that interferes with my time as a human being to enjoy life and cultivate value, I just turn off those things. If something gets in the way of me cultivating value it’s gotta go, even if it means I miss some opportunities, ‘cause there’s no opportunity I’m gonna miss just from pursuing the craft.

About Questlove

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