Jazz Is: 28 – The Grammys’ “Best New Artist”

If you came of age watching the Academy Awards play all hail Hollywood while the most innovative filmmaking was ignored, or the Grammy’s spend the 60s and 70s honoring mainstream bland while rock was busting out all over, Sunday night’s Grammy Awards delivered the pleasure of the voting membership delivering up its Best New Artist award to someone the fans never heard of – not Justin Bieber, but jazz bassist, singer, and composer Esperanza Spalding.

Wait, Who Is This Esperanza Spalding?

A broad contingent of Spalding’s fans, especially within but certainly not limited to the jazz community, knew she has winning musicianship. But few believed she had even a puncher’s chance at the actual award. Especially for its highest-profile categories, the Grammys tend to reward top-selling acts signed to major record labels, regardless of musical merit. And with teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber in the running — not to mention Drake, Florence and the Machine and Mumford and Sons — her missing-out seemed a foregone conclusion. The Recording Academy had never given this honor to a jazz artist before.


The easy answer is that she’s a highly skilled and highly marketable musician. She’s obviously photogenic and preternaturally poised in the spotlight, be it on national TV, performing for President Barack Obama three times (twice at the White House, once at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony), headlining sold-out shows across North America and Europe, paying tribute to Prince, opening for Prince, co-hosting the Grammy pre-telecast ceremony, or receiving a Grammy herself. This, plus her backstory, youth (she’s 26, oldest among the nominees but young as acclaimed jazz performers go) and virtuosic talent, make her a natural spokesperson for an American art form, and the recipient of some crossover attention.

About that talent. As a bassist, she was tapped to teach at Berklee College of Music — her alma mater — at age 20, and plays in bands with today’s top-tier jazz musicians. As a singer, she has an exuberant, chirpy gusto. As a composer, her music touches on R&B, Brazilian music and classical chamber music, but is rooted in structure and improvisatory feeling. And as a performer, she exudes stage presence and charisma. She seems to innately understand the character of pop and rock music, and far from being against it, embraces its rhythms, stagecraft and energy.

Here, in a chamber music mood that is one of her many, Spalding offers a “Tiny Desk Concert.” Give yourself the fifteen minutes while you tidy up or put away the dishes. But don’t neglect to watch some: Spalding does have presence. She begins with a composition set to the words of William Blake’s “The Fly” and ends with her original composition “Apple Blossom,” the last couple of minutes of which are a thrill achieved only from what comes before.

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