Person of the Week: Esperanza Spalding, Finding Her Voice Through Jazz

Grammy-winning Jazz pioneer beat out Bieber for Artist of the Year.

Feb. 18, 2011— -- And the winner is ... Esperanza Spalding.

The seven words that shocked "beliebers" everywhere perhaps most stunned the young jazz pioneer herself.

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The lone jazz musician up for the Best New Artist award, and the first to ever win it, she "certainly felt like the underdog, the odd one out." As the realization sank in, she stood up, tried to collect herself, "to walk up those steps without tripping and speak coherent sentences in the microphone."

"I take this honor to heart so sincerely and I'll do my damndest to make a whole lot of great music for all of you." Her acceptance speech Sunday was the first time many Americans heard her voice.

While she might be considered a newcomer to mainstream music, the striking dark horse winner with that trademark hairdo has been playing since she was just 5 years old. She said she owes her journey, taking her from small clubs in Portland to the stage at the White House, to the "incredible community and family of musicians that I am so blessed to be a part of."

Who Is Esperanza Spalding?

The laughing, down-to-earth Spalding said her first inspiration came while watching television. "The first defining moment that sort of set off this road of my life as a musician was when I was 5," she said. "I saw Yo-Yo Ma on "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. When I saw that, I said hey, I want to do music."

She taught herself to play the violin, but said she owes her start to her single mother's "incredible foundation of support and her wisdom." Spalding's mother nurtured her daughter's talent and prevented their tough Portland neighborhood from stifling her musical curiosity.

"She went out of her way to find any programs that might be beneficial to me, finding instruments, finding teachers, any program on the weekend, in the summer," Spalding said. "I sort of think of her as my saint you know."

Her musical education continued through the years in Portland, a city that "really was an incredible place" for Spalding to grow up as a musician, she said. "I really feel like what I have a lot of musically, what I am aware of musically, is thanks to the incredible generosity of so many educators in that city."

Finding Her Voice

Spalding added the piano and the guitar to her repertoire, and then the instrument that helped her win the hearts of so many in the music community: the bass.

"When I was 15 and I picked up the bass, all of a sudden I got a taste of improvised music and I had never played anything that way in my life," she said. The bass gave her opportunities to play small gigs, and she entered the professionally.

"I felt like my voice was going to come out through this instrument," she said. And jazz, which "seemed so open, so accessible, and fun ... was just the music that spoke to me ... I grew to deeply love the storytelling aspect of it."

Then, a year later, she said the words every mother fears: I want to drop out of high school. But her mother gave the unexpected response, allowed her to follow her dreams. "She gave me a lot of freedom and trust when I was young," Spalding said, allowing her to go to college for jazz.

Her talent so impressive, after auditioning for the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Spalding was offered a scholarship on the spot. She went on to become a faculty member there -- at the age of 20, the youngest ever in the history of the school, all the while performing those deep, soulful tunes on her bass and making a name for herself in jazz circles.

Her Next Stage

Spalding graduated to bigger stages: she was President Obama's choice to play at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and has been invited to perform at the White House several times, most recently at the Medal of Freedom ceremony. But it was her first performance at the White House, with some famous faces in the audience, that struck her most.

When Stevie Wonder received the Gershwin Prize, Spalding performed his "Overjoyed." "It was nerve-racking, not only because the president, the first lady, and the vice president were sitting there, but because Paul Simon was over there, Stevie Wonder was over there, Herbie Hancock was right over there -- I just felt overwhelmed with awe at my musical heroes all just sitting in the same row in front of me," she said.

But she wowed them, won them over, and hopes to do the same to a new generation of music lovers.

"I'm going to keep doing this music as long as I can, as long as I'm alive," she said.

And what about Justin Bieber? The two met backstage at the Grammys, where they complimented each other's hair and shared what they had in common: a strong support system from two very proud mothers.

While the Bieb was happy for Spalding after her win, what about his outraged fans who have lashed out against the jazz queen for stealing their heartthrob's stage?

"You never know, some of those Bieber fans in a few years might discover they like jazz, they like the bass, and they like my singing," she said. "And if they don't, God bless them and I'm going to keep doing it anyway."

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