If you talk to enough musicians promoting tours, it gets easier to tell which ones actually look forward to visiting a city, as opposed to viewing a stop as just one more date to check off the schedule.
Upon mention of Esperanza Spalding’s coming performance at Durham’s Carolina Theatre (Monday at 8 p.m.), her expressed love for the Bull City rings true.
“I love Durham! I’m serious,” she says. “It feels really good there, and I know a lot of really talented folks that live there.”
Spalding spends the next several minutes proselytizing the recent organic growth of jazz in various cities, as new fans are being converted.
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“Isn’t it nice?” she asks. “I don’t even know what to say! When I think about my favorite jazz musicians, and I mean some of them are legendary, very few are actually from New York; people end up in New York, but they always come from another place.
“I think the energy of a city, and how it effects the music and musicians that evolve there, has always had a huge impact on how the genre changes,” Spalding continues. “Even though I’m from the Northwest, when I go to Durham and feel the energy of the city, I understand why it has attracted these musicians that have migrated there. I think it’s a myth that New York is where everything happens. It’s true in some ways, but I think the individuality of a place does more to evolve music than a mecca does.”
Strangely enough, growing up in the Northwest may have introduced Spalding to jazz much quicker than if she had been raised in one of jazz’s cultural capitals. As a native of Portland, Ore., Spalding found at a relatively young age that there were many folks there who looked at expanding someone else’s musical vocabulary as merely a chance to “pay it forward.”
“The Pacific Northwest is a very special and magical place,” Spalding says. “And in Portland, the jazz community at that time was like this co-op; it wasn’t fruit and vegetables that they were trading, it was just the music. People would get together and listen to music, and play tunes, and write compositions. I didn’t realize how unique that was, or maybe I was just the right age and everyone that I was hanging out with didn’t have kids yet. I just plugged into this open and awesome community of music lovers, men and women, who just wanted to play music together. I got a lot of gigs, and I got a lot of records, and got a lot of great music lessons, and it was great.”
Spalding soon learned that magnanimous attitude toward teaching was an unusual practice.
“For most folks, it is, ‘To learn this, you have to pay me $100 a lesson,’ ” she said. “That was culture shock when I moved to the East Coast. Living in Portland, music just came out of people’s pores.”
Her Portland musical education paid off in a big way, as Spalding has since taken the jazz world by storm. The bassist/vocalist/composer won Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards, shocking the music world by becoming the first jazz artist to ever win that category. Among those Spalding bested in that category was teen pop star Justin Bieber.
When asked if she ever felt the desire to go onto Twitter during the chaotic next few weeks, as many Beliebers made it a personal mission to denigrate Spalding’s musical output, she brushes away the thought.
“None of that stuff was my problem,” she says. “My mom was a drug-and-alcohol counselor, and she said one of the first things she tried to instill in her clients was the concept of responsibility, and its twofold; the first half is recognizing what is truly your responsibility, and the other half is recognizing what isn’t. I saw all of that as a lot of noise that wasn’t my responsibility to address, so I let it go. I didn’t have to deal with it, and they seemed to have fun and be entertained by the whole controversy.”
All of her early success – becoming the biggest-selling jazz artist in the world and selling out concert venues at a record-pace – hasn’t dampened her love of the genre.
“Sometimes, I’ll be sitting, surrounded by amazing musicians after a performance, and can’t help but wonder if that really just happened,” Spalding says. “Like, ‘was any of that actually real?’ Moments like that are hard to conceptualize, because you don’t want to sensationalize your entire life. Then again, it’s this experience that just ten years ago would have seemed totally impossible.
“A lot of moments like that have happened in my life.”