Romancing the Bass

Tuesday January 1, 2013

On my iPod, tucked between Ella Fitzgerald's swinging renditions of Rodgers and Hart tunes and Lady Gaga's gaudy, campy, driving dance beats, is an American jazz classic: the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five." Written by Paul Desmond - Brubeck's longtime collaborator and saxophonist in the group - its catchy sax phrases and unusual 5/4 time signature helped make Brubeck's 1959 album Time Out the first American jazz record to sell over a million copies. This is all the more remarkable given that Dave Brubeck almost became a veterinarian and couldn't actually read music. With Brubeck's death earlier this month at the age of 91, I've wondered who'll be the next jazz genius to reimagine the form and propel it once again into the American mainstream. Esperanza Spalding - 28-year-old bassist, composer and vocalist - is the gal.

If you have Justin Beiber fans in your life, you may know Spalding as that shameless hussy who beat out Beiber in the Best New Artist category at the 2011 Grammys. His angry, adoring legions took to the internet immediately following the broadcast to indignantly protest her win - and to alter her Wikipedia page; they injected bits that proclaimed that Spaulding had won despite the fact that nobody had ever heard of her. At that point, she'd already performed at the White House, the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony and the David Letterman Show; clearly, Beiber's fans don't frequent these venues.

In the lead-up to the Grammy awards, the jazz world's elation at her nomination was obvious, but few thought she'd actually win - despite her tremendous virtuosity and creativity. Gil Goldstein, a co-producer on her album Chamber Music Society - which united her classical roots and her passion for jazz - said before the awards, "I've been kind of joking, saying it would be nice that if once in a while, the best new artist would be someone who reads and writes (music)." Her sincere and warm acceptance speech revealed her own thorough astonishment at her victory. But now just two years later, she's been nominated for three more Grammy Awards, including Best Jazz Album of the Year. She has arrived.

Like Brubeck's childhood on a California cattle ranch, Spalding's upbringing did not have the trappings that often portend musical prominence. Raised by a single mom in a rough neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, Spalding endured a longtime illness as a child and later dropped out high school because - she explained in a recent Smithsonian magazine profile - she just couldn't seem to find her place.

Her story could easily have had a very different trajectory than the one she's enjoyed these past few years. But Spalding, like Brubeck, had a mom who both appreciated music and had a talent for it. Brubeck's mother studied classical piano and almost became a concert pianist; Spalding's mom nearly became a touring singer. These women instilled in their talented children the knowledge that music mattered. For Spalding, this meant that when she saw cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood at 4-years-old, she was ready to claim music as her calling.

In short order, she taught herself violin, and at the age of five auditioned for the Chamber Music Society of Oregon - a community orchestra open to youth and adults. She played violin with this group for 10 years, becoming concert master at 15. Around this time she unexpectedly discovered her passion for the upright bass.

Spaulding describes her affinity for the bass as "waking up one day and realizing you're in love with a co-worker." The formidable instrument called to her and would not be denied. So, with bass in hand, she began an illicit flirtation with the worlds of jazz, hip hop, funk and blues that soon turned into a full blown affair.

There's much to love about this talented woman. There's that Angela Davis-esque pompadour standing at attention at the top of her bright and open face. Then there's the ease with which this petite gal tames - no, more like sashays with - that gigantic bass. Her video of "Overjoyed" is simply mesmerizing. What a treat to witness such raw talent cavorting with inventiveness and passionate expression. It is extraordinary, too, that she can convey such a range of emotions through those bottomless low notes.

Her astonishing talent aside, there's something else inspiring and refreshing about Esperanza Spalding. She attributes her success and ample creativity to lively collaboration. When interviewers and reviewers comment on her huge musical gifts, she's quick to note that she plays with a host of prodigies and she always learns from them.

But you don't have to be musically gifted to benefit from dynamic collaboration. In his book, "Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration," University of Washington researcher Keith Sawyer argues that "collaborative webs are more important than creative people" and that organizations can foster group genius by encouraging "improvised innovation" and constant conversation. Sawyer dispels the myth of the "single flash of insight" in favor of innovation emerging from a bunch of smaller sparks. He draws strong parallels between the genius that surfaces in jazz jam sessions and the innovation that bubbles up in the business world when a team experiences "group flow" - that groove we feel when we perform at our peak. No doubt, Esperanza Spalding experienced this flow state many times during her breathtaking ascent in the jazz world, and Brubeck certainly thrived in his group's collaborations.

As I welcome the New Year's possibility and promise, I aim to wholly engage the power of spirited collaboration in my work. I'm not angling for a Grammy, but I'm still excited to see what happens.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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