THERE ARE TWO STORIES we've heard about Esperanza Spalding in the past week or so. The first is that she is originally from Portland, which of course is true. The second and louder of the two tales is her unexpected usurping of a Grammy statuette from the delicate paws of one Justin Bieber. The fallout from this act of pop music treason—albeit spurned by the actions of the tear-stained tween masses—came in the form of death threats on Twitter and the relatively harmless hijacking of Spalding's Wikipedia page. Hell hath no fury like a Bieber fan scorned.
Here in Portland, Spalding was a jazz wunderkind back in the early aughts when as a high schooler she boldly fronted the trio Noise for Pretend, which was inked to local label Hush Records (who should be commended for their foresight in signing both Spalding and the Decemberists nearly a decade before either were household names). She left school ahead of schedule, breezed through Boston's Berklee College of Music on a full ride, became the youngest faculty member in the prestigious school's history, and launched a career of nimble solo recordings, including last year's classically rooted Chamber Music Society. Spalding's masterful bass technique and airy voice waltz through her disciplined arrangements, bridging the gap between decades of music (if not centuries, when you consider the orchestral arrangements of the album) within the context of a single song.
Yet the narrative we hear about Spalding veers toward Grammy night, and not how this unassuming 26-year-old from Northeast Portland has gloriously returned home to headline a very sold-out performance at the PDX Jazz Fest. While her newfound fame might be drowned out by the rattling sabers of the Bieber Army, Spalding has earned worldwide appeal as a protégée-turned-master at a tender age. She's an artist whose lead press quote comes not from a critic's pen or an icon of the jazz community, but from the most powerful man on the planet, President Barack Obama, who said, "I love listening to Esperanza, she is wonderful." Glowing endorsements from Prince, Stevie Wonder, and just about anyone else who has heard her music are a stark reminder that Spalding is no mere musician toiling in the depths of obscurity, but the face and future of jazz itself. It's about time we start treating her as such.