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Esperanza Spalding: This Music Should Be Known

Jazzed Magazine • September 2010Spotlight • September 24, 2010

Esperanza Spalding: This Music Should Be KnownA musical prodigy from a single-parent household in a rough part of town who grows up not “fitting in” with normal society, but who rises above it all to find massive success at an extremely young age, all the while remaining grounded, humble, approachable Esperanza Spalding’s Capra-esque life story is inspiring and uplifting, and she serves as one of the brightest beacons for the future of jazz.

In addition to having worked with the likes of Pat Metheney, Patti Austin, Stanley Clarke, and Joe Lovano, Spalding has made the most impact as a solo artist and bandleader in her own right. Her first recording, 2006’s critically acclaimed Junjo, was followed in 2008 by Esperanza, which stayed in the upper regions of the Billboard Jazz charts for well over a year. The just released (August 17, 2010) Chamber Music Society has already topped the CMJ Jazz chart, debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Heatseeker Chart, and registered as the top-selling Jazz Album for both iTunes and Amazon during its first month.

In addition to well-received recordings, big-name collaborations, and a number of high profile concert and television appearances, Spalding has background as an educator, having served as the youngest-ever faculty member at Berklee College of Music.

JAZZed recently had a chance to sit down Esperanza to get her thoughts on approaches to learning and teaching jazz, and to discuss the importance of effectively passing on jazz to the next generations.

JAZZed: As we often do with these interview things, let’s start at the beginning how did you first really get involved with playing music?

ES: [laughs] I guess I was around five years old and I saw an episode of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” with Yo-Yo Ma as the guest. Even though he’s a cellist, for some reason I walked away thinking, “Whoa, that is amazing. I guess it’s called #149;the violin’ and I want to do that.” My mother went and found some programs in Portland that offered instruments and instruction and that’s how that took off.

JAZZed: You had a unique schooling experience some years in a standard school setting, some years of home schooling. How do you feel that impacted your study of, and approach to, music?

ES: That’s a really good question. I guess I don’t know yet, clearly, how being home-schooled affected my music or my approach to music. I do think that maybe learning how to self-study, maybe especially at a younger age, provides a degree of self-sufficiency. Also, just understanding the process.

JAZZed: The “process” Can you expand on that?

ES: Just… you know, going out to the library and gathering resources and taking my own time to learn, asking the questions and answering them, myself: What do I need? What am I missing in my work? Where can I get what I need? Theorizing how to get the resources I need and extract that information in an orderly manner, so that I know a given topic and I can show that I know it. That’s not abstract to you or I now, but it is a skill that you have to cultivate and learn and I guess I like the way that I came to learn all that.

JAZZed: Can you tell me how your primary instrument went from violin to bass?

Esperanza Spalding: This Music Should Be KnownES: Basically I went into this music room in my high school when I was, I think, 15 and I just saw an upright bass and started noodling on it. I immediately loved the sound of this big weird violin [laughs]. Then this teacher at the school explained basic blues progression and explained the basic premise behind improvised music blues, jazz. We played a blues right there, with my first walking bass line, and it was just immediately accessible to me. I kind of fell in love and knew that this was it for me.

JAZZed: You attended Berklee at a young age. How’d you wind up there?

ES: When I was 16, I auditioned and got a scholarship to go to Portland State University, which has a really excellent music program really excellent. A lot of the musicians from the Oregon Symphony teach there, as well as a few of the prominent jazz musicians on the scene. I got a partial scholarship to go for the classical program and study with Ken Baldwin, who I had been studying with privately. He passed, unfortunately, but he was just an amazing teacher, an amazing gentleman. I did Jazz Studies for my minor while at Portland State. In one of these classes, Darrell Grant suggested I go to auditions that Berklee was holding in Seattle. So I filled out the application and was, like, the last person that they put in the last slot on the last day. Anyway, I drove to the audition in Seattle, and they told me then and there that they’d give me a full scholarship to Berklee.

JAZZed: In keeping with an already established trend of advancing to stages at a far speedier rate than the norm, you soon were teaching at Berklee. How did you go from being a student to being the youngest teacher ever at the school?

ES: Ha! I don’t really know!

JAZZed: Well, had you been giving any private lessons prior to the official appointment? Tutoring?

ES: Not really. Not more than we all do as students you know how it is. You get together with your peers and you show them what you know, and they show you what they know. I felt like I could teach, though. I love the process of, once I’ve figured out something, figuring out how I learned it and how I can explain it to another. So I certainly felt it was accessible to me and I could be good at it.

JAZZed: So how did the position at Berklee come about?

ES: I was playing a lot with Joe Lovano, who had been hired a couple years before, and when he was speaking with the president one day he suggested asking me to teach.

JAZZed: That’s a pretty nice advocate to have in your corner.

ES: Oh, yeah, definitely! So the president [Roger H. Brown] called me into his office and told me, “I really want to offer you this job, but what’s most important to us is your professional career. You have to promise me that if the teaching job ever gets in the way of your career as a performer, you’ll stop.”

JAZZed: Very supportive.

Esperanza Spalding: This Music Should Be KnownES: It was great. He’s a very cool, cool guy. So I started teaching that summer. They hired me as a teacher in the five-week Summer program I think to sort of see how it would go and then I was on staff in the fall.

JAZZed: What appealed to you about teaching at Berklee?

ES: Helping people figure something out and watching them come back the following week after having really worked at it, and they’ve got it, and they cant wait to show you what they did that’s really satisfying. It’s also really educational for me to look at these processes and figure out how they work. How come I do that? How come I know that? And to try to understand where it all comes from. Some things you just “get” intuitively, and getting to break down every tiny detail and aspect and explain things in a methodical way that was really fun and exciting when it worked.

JAZZed: Anything that was maybe less enjoyable?

ES: One challenge for me was that I really wasn’t there enough. I was already working a lot and traveling a lot. Ultimately, I felt I wasn’t there enough to do the job correctly and that wasn’t fair to the students and wasn’t fair to me. The thing that was most frustrating and part of the reason I left was I really thought that my skills as a musician would be best used by teaching what I’m best at.

JAZZed: Explain? What were you teaching?

ES: I was teaching private lessons, which I thought was really great and meaningful. That was my favorite thing. But then I also taught these labs that anyone could’ve been teaching. Pre-requisite type classES: Reading labs, bass line construction labs. I thought that anybody qualified could’ve done that, but not just anybody could teach my approach to singing and playing, my approach to being a bandleader, and all these different things that I thought I had unique strengths in and I really wanted to share.

JAZZed: So those combined factors led to you leaving the school’s faculty.

ES: Yes. I taught there for three years and left in 2008.

JAZZed: Are you still teaching in any capacity?

ES: Oh yeah. I do a lot of lessons. If I’m in town and I have an hour and somebody really wants to study with me, I’m happy to do a lesson. I do a lot of little workshops, too. If I’m playing and there’s a good music program at the local college I’ll run a couple days of workshops.

JAZZed: How would you compare the one format/setting to the other?

ES: I like the mentor/peer thing I think that’s really crucial and I miss being a part of that relationship on either end. I know that all of the people who have been most influential in my life, it was borne out of a very open, mentor-type relationship and I like to create that with people whose musical ability I believe in. I like to be there with and for them as they develop and grow. Right now I just have that with my friends and my fellow-musicians. I miss that aspect of teaching very much, though. It’s not always possible in a school setting and I appreciate that.

JAZZed: Do you feel that more “structured” school settings still have value in terms of learning music?

Esperanza Spalding: This Music Should Be KnownES: Sure. There are so many incredible things being done in a very regimented environment, like a high school big band program. I just recently did this thing with Jazz House Kids [] and Melissa [Walker. Founder – Ed] had invited in this high school big band from Camden, New Jersey. I don’t know what this director’s process is he seemed much more open minded and less into this, “this is the pedagogy and this is how we’re going to teach it, end of story,” approach. His kids sounded incredible. It takes all ways, but in any environment you can make that connection and get results.

JAZZed: Having worked with a number of true jazz giants, presumably you feel that sort of exposure and interaction serves as an educational experience, in its own right?

ES: Those are the educational experiences. I learn much more from playing with Joe Lovano than anything that’s ever happened in a class. Playing with Joe for the last… Oh, my God… 7 or 8 years what!!? [laughs]… How can I say this? You can learn a lot about jazz music, you can learn a lot about the inner structures of harmony and the relationships of scales and how to “solo” using these tools and how to apply them to chords and time but the music you learn from the players. Just being around Joe Lovano, hearing him talk about records or musicians he’s worked with the learning that comes from that is so much deeper and so much more meaningful to me. You can check out a book from the library and learn all you could ever want to know about jazz theory and jazz harmony it doesn’t mean that you’ll use it in any meaningful way or even feel motivated or incentive or know where to look in yourself or how to share it on the bandstand. Unfortunately there aren’t as many bands that younger kids can really come through and have that experience.

JAZZed: What advice or encouragement would you share with jazz educators?

ES: I know it can be challenging, but get to know your students. Really learn who your students are because everybody learns so differently. I know, as teachers, it’s so busy and there’s so much stress that sometimes it’s hard to really look and understand the unique challenges of this person. How can I best tailor my approach to help this person have access to this thing that I think is so worth knowing?

I feel like this music should be known I want to share this with another generation of young people. That mission is a big motivation for most jazz educators, but that message can get lost with within all the business and madness that goes along with teaching. There’s really a value to these young people learning this music. When I could find the time and compassion and patience to understand what was it that a particular student wasn’t grasping and was able to cater my approach to the situation… the results were miraculous. Being a student who did not thrive in traditional learning environments, myself, those few teachers who would just slow down a bit and say, “Hey I notice that you’re having a problem with this what if we look at it this way, instead?” That was literally life-changing for me and I’m eternally grateful for it.

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