Scene Stories: Esperanza Spalding

More Reasons to Love Esperanza Spalding

by Guest Writer, Hannah Dexter

As if there aren’t enough?

I’ll admit, this chick intimidates the heck outta me. But man, what a genius. A little background on our interaction. I was (and still consider myself to be) a member of Thara Memory’s American Music Program. A really kick-ass, intense, terrifying, and rewarding conglomerate big band in Portland, Oregon. Most jazz musicians who’ve come from Portland have gone through Mr. Memory; Ben Wolfe, Chris Botti, Esperanza Spalding, Hailey Niswanger, and many more to come. Ms. Spalding was in the band some odd years ago, and while she was attending Berklee School of Music, she always came back to the group over breaks to share charts and arrangements she was working on.

   I finally got the chance to meet this woman in late March of my senior year of high school. We spent 6 hours working on a latin chart called “Goombay Smash”. Ms. Spalding heard my samba groove and asked to borrow my electric . She sat down and said, “It’s all on the one and three. You’ve got to think about which drum in the Samba School you’re representing, and then, just hit it.” BAM! Without even touching the volume, that lady laid down a groove so fat that the whole room started shaking. My knees went loose and I suddenly felt what the groove was always supposed to sound like. 30 of my friends and I, carrying drums half the size of our bodies, walking down a street in the city, in the blistering heat, getting people dancing. It instantly made sense. She asked the rhythm section to join her, but I could’ve just listened to her play those two notes by herself for an hour. We had one more week of rehearsal, with rhythm sectionals every day thanks to our new understanding of the music. With all the knew knowledge I had gotten from her, and Cuban native Al Criado, I’m not ashamed to say that my band totally killed it at the Monteray Jazz Festival with this tune.

   So that was the last I saw of Ms. Esperanza Spalding until winter break of my freshman year of college. Like a lot of alumnis in the group, we all try to make it back to one or two rehearsals in the Christmas season. I got the privilege to play “Sweet Georgia Brown“ with the others home from college….. man, I was terrified. It did not go well on my part. I was so nervous. Oy. Ugh. Blah. But, I think she understood.

   Summer came. I went back to the band. Mr. Memory told me the great news. Esperanza’s new cd was going to have a song about Portland on it, and she had hired the American Music Program to arrange and perform on the recording (FOR UNION WAGES) and do a benefit concert with her at the end of the summer. For one reason or another, of all the great bass players he could have chosen, Mr. Memory chose me to play the concert, and be in the music video that accompanied the song, “City of Roses”. I was freakin’ out. To say the least.

   She ended up hiring the horn players for 3 tracks, “Radio Song”, “Hold on Me”, and “City of Roses”. I went to all the recording sessions, even though they already had a wonderful bass player (her initials are Esperanza Spalding). I just wanted to see it all happen. Goodness, was I awkward around her. I lent her my bass for one recording, and Mr. Memory my tights for another (apparently it makes a good harmon mute?). And then the whole band got together to rehearse “Sweet Georgia Brown” with her singing for our concert. As nervous as I was to be playing for her again, midway through, she turned around, smiled, and winked at me. Biggest compliment of my life!

   I transcribed the bass line to “City of Roses” for our concert, even though she was going to be performing it. I asked to play it for Mr. Memory’s feedback; “Sweetie, that’s okay, I suppose. But you’re missing that something that Esperanza has. You don’t have it.” I was pretty embarrassed. It was time for the soundcheck, and they couldn’t find Ms. Spalding, so they got the next curliest thing to check her bass. I went up on this big stage, closed my eyes, and imagined that someday I could give back to the band this same way. I played the groove to this song about the city I love, and felt it soothe the future homesickness I was to experience in a week when I went back to Michigan. At the end of a few choruses, there were two hands clapping. Esperanza’s. “You’ve got it, girl. You’re groovin.” Second biggest compliment of my life.

   I passed the bass off to her and watched her warm up. A worker for the concert told her, that the people who paid 100$ were getting impatient at the VIP reception, and wondered where she was for the meet and greet. “They’ll have to wait, I’m busy.” “But Ms. Spalding, they paid a lot of money to see you.” “No, ma’am, they paid to hear good music.” BAM! WIN!

   I only played two songs at the concert. But I spent about 42 hours in rehearsals for it over the prior two weeks. We traded bass playing on “Sweet Georgia Brown”. The biggest smile was on my face. I sat off stage for the rest of the concert. Tearing up with gratitude. She announced all the money for “City of Roses” was going straight back to the band. She said, “I’m grateful that my name, and my grammy, whatever that means, brought you to this show, but that’s not what this show is about. This show is about displaying the wonderful talent that Portland has, not just in the older generation, but in the future. I won’t be at every concert, but I hope and pray that you will be.”

   6 days later, my last day in Portland until Christmas. I played a gig at the Art Museam with one of the hardest working female leaders in Portland, Susie & the Sidecar. Then wheeled my bass and suit across the hot Portland sidewalks, to the Morrison bridge where we awaited the shooting of the “City of Roses” music video. The director from Brazil approached me, talking in Portuguese, and heck if I could understand her. An intern came to translate, “We don’t need two bass players. We have Esperanza!” Another worker talked to her gently, and she looked irritated, but walked over to Ms. Spalding’s makeup van where her fro was being meticulously landscaped. It was far away, but I could see her, smile big and say, OF COURSE! Like it was obvious.

   I played the groove. I sang backup vocals. I was constantly smiling. I was in. After the last take, I went up to Ms. Spalding, and for the first time had the words to thank her for all that she is and all that she’s giving. She put her hands on my hair and said, “Girl, not only where you grooving your heart out, here and at the concert, but your fro definitely beat mine today.” Third biggest compliment.


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