On February 13, 2011, Esperanza won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist at the 53rd Grammy Awards, making her the first jazz artist to win the award.
Spalding grew up in the King neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, a neighborhood she describes as "ghetto" and "pretty scary." Her first musical influence was her mother who once aspired to be a touring singer herself. She has said her magic moment came after watching classical cellist Yo Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when she was four.
By the time Spalding was five, she had taught herself to play the violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Spalding stayed with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon until she was fifteen and left as concertmaster.
Due to a lengthy illness, Spalding spent much of her elementary school years being homeschooled. According to Spalding, when she was about 8 her mother briefly studied jazz guitar in college; Spalding says, "Going with her to her class, I would sit under the piano. Then I would come home and I would be playing her stuff that her teacher had been playing." Spalding also played oboe and clarinet before discovering the bass in high school.
Spalding had intended to play cello, but discovered the bass during a one-year stint at age 14 at the prestigious performing arts high school, The Northwest Academy, to which she had won a scholarship. The school was not a good fit, but the bass was. By the time she randomly picked up the bass in music class and began experimenting with it, she had grown bored with her other instruments.
Her band teacher showed her a blues line for the bass (which she later used to secure her first gig.) She started playing the bass daily and gradually fell in love. Spalding says discovering the bass was like "waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker." Spalding found high school "easy – and boring" and dropped out.
When she was in her mid-teens, Spalding started writing lyrics for music for the local indie rock/pop group Noise for Pretend. Up until then, her primary singing experience had come from "singing in the shower," before she started performing vocals for Noise for Pretend. She can sing in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
After completing her GED, she enrolled on a music scholarship in the music program at Portland State University, where she remembers being "the youngest bass player in the program."
She then decided to apply to Berklee College of Music on the encouragement of her bass teacher, and did well enough in her audition to receive a full scholarship. Still, Spalding was unable to budget for living expenses, so her friends arranged a benefit concert that paid her airfare and a little extra.
Spalding's savings did not last long. Broke and exhausted, she considered leaving music and entering political science, a move jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny discouraged, telling Spalding she had "the 'X Factor'" and could make it if she applied herself.
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Spalding had begun performing live in clubs in Portland, Oregon as a teenager, securing her first gig at 15 in a blues club when she could only play one line on bass. One of the seasoned musicians with which she played that first night invited her to join the band's rehearsals which soon grew into regular performances spanning almost a year.
Her early contact with these "phenomenal resources," as she calls the musicians who played with her, fostered her sense of rhythm and helped nurture her interest in her instrument.
Patti Austin hired Spalding to tour with her internationally after Spalding's first semester at Berklee, where Spalding supported the singer on the Ella Fitzgerald tribute tour "For Ella." She continued to perform with Austin for three years.
During the same period, while at Berklee, Spalding studied under saxophonist Joe Lovano before eventually touring with him. They began as a trio, expanding into a quartet before joining quintet US5 and traveling across the United States.
Spalding was the 2005 recipient of the Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding musicianship. Almost immediately after graduation from college later the same year, Spalding was hired by Berklee College of Music, becoming one of the youngest professors in the institution's history, at age 20.
As of 2008, she was also in the process of developing several courses for students at Berklee, including one that focuses "on transcribing as a tool for learning harmony and theory."
Spalding has recorded three albums Junjo in 2006, Esperanza in 2008 and Chamber Music Society in 2010. The first was created to display the dynamic that she felt among her trio. Though Junjo was released solely under her name, Spalding considers it "a collaborative effort."
With Esperanza, Spalding's material was meant to be more reflective of herself as an artist, with musicians selected to best present that material.
Ed Morales wrote in PopMatters on June 23, 2008 that Esperanza is "a sprawling collage of jazz fusion, Brazilian and even a touch of hip-hop." In addition to these albums, Spalding has collaborated with Fourplay, Stanley Clarke, Christian Scott, Donald Harrison, Joe Lovano, Nino Josele, Nando Michelin, and Theresa Perez.
Her next project, scheduled for release in late 2011, is an album currently titled Radio Music Society, which she hopes will showcase jazz musicians in an accessible manner suitable for mainstream radio.