Esperanza Emily Spalding (born October 18, 1984) is an American jazz bassist and singer. Spalding was raised in Portland, Oregon and was a musical prodigy, playing violin in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at five years old. She was later both self-taught and -trained on a number of instruments, including guitar and bass. Her proficiency earned her scholarships to Portland State University and the Berklee College of Music. In 2017 she was appointed Professor of the Practice of Music at Harvard University.
Spalding was born in Portland, Oregon, to an African-American father and a mother of Welsh, Native American, and Hispanic descent. She was raised in the King, Alberta neighborhood in Northeast Portland, which at that time was at its height of gang violence. Her mother raised her and her brother as a single parent.
Spalding has an interest in the music of other cultures, including that of Brazil, commenting: “With Portuguese songs, the phrasing of the melody is intrinsically linked with the language, and it’s beautiful.” Spalding’s mother shares her interest in music, having nearly become a touring singer herself. Spalding’s mother took note of her musical proclivity when Spalding was able to reproduce Beethoven by ear on the family’s piano. Spalding has credited watching classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma perform on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an integral part of her childhood, and what inspired her to pursue music.
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 group until she was fifteen years old, and left as concertmaster. Due to a lengthy childhood illness, Spalding spent much of her elementary school years being home-schooled, but also attended King Elementary School in northeast Portland. During this time, she also found the opportunity to pick up instruction in music by listening to her mother’s college teacher instructor, who instructed her mother in guitar. According to Spalding, when she was about eight, 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 double bass in high school. She sings in English, Spanish and Portuguese.