Regular readers—-if I have any—-will know I’m ambivalent at best about bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding. (Especially if the regular reader is former Arts Desk editor Sarah Godfrey, who’s tolerated my rantings about Spalding for at least two years.) Put simply, I think Spalding is a spectacularly talented bassist who sounds better every time I hear her play; her singing, though, is contrived and callow, and she coasts an awful lot on her undeniable cuteness.
When it comes to her surprise Grammy win for best new artist, though, the ambivalence flies out the window. Never mind what I’ve said above; never mind that the Recording Academy is once again ignoring its own award’s criteria bygiving it to Spalding. (Best new artist honors someone whose breakthrough album came in the past year; Spalding’s was released in 2008.) Never mind the pissed off Drake and Justin Bieber fans—-the latter of whom scrawled on Spalding’s Wikipedia page that she “ IS F****** REATARD THAT NO ONE HAS HEARD OF.” This is a great day for jazz.
Is it going to turn Spalding into a superstar? God, no, and it won’t hurt the also-rans, either. Drake and Bieber are pap, yes, but pap is in. Still, despite its sizable commercial woes, jazz doesn’t really need a superstar; all it needs is someone who can capture just a bite of the mainstream’s attention.
Consider: When Herbie Hancock won an equally surprising Grammy for album of the year three years ago, his River: The Joni Letters spiked in the following week’s sales by 967 percent. Spalding’s Chamber Music Society will inevitably see some sort of spike. But she and her album have things that Hancock and his album didn’t. Youth, for example, and photogenic sex appeal. Not to mention charisma.
Oh, Hancock has charisma, no doubt, but it’s the sort that you experience in seeing him speak in public or private; musically, charisma belongs to singers, and while there were vocals on River, they were all from guests like Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae, both charismatic enough to upstage the leader. On Chamber Music Society the leader is the singer, and the charisma is all hers. It’s what’s got her on television and into the White House, and it’ll land her in some music libraries this week. Not an avalanche, a trickle—-but even a trickle increases the flow. Selling Spalding’s albums might also sell her concert tickets, and perhaps even tickets to concerts at which she plays but is not the star, especially if it means getting to sit jazz-club-close to her.
Just as important, though, is the morale victory that the jazz community has received by proxy. Facebook and Twitter feeds have blown up last night and today with gleeful announcements and congratulations by musicians like Nicholas Payton, Cassandra Wilson, Vijay Iyer, and Hancock himself, not to mention dozens of publicists, producers, journalists, and other industry folk. D.C. jazz musicians seem to be uniformly over the moon. If all this Grammy win does is provide a shot of inspiration and enthusiasm to the musicians, that’ll be enough.