Esperanza Spalding Honored by L.A's Occidental College for 'Groundbreaking Work'

AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
Esperanza Spalding performs at the International Jazz Day concert at the Alicia Alonso Theater on April 30, 2017 in Havana, Cuba. 

Esperanza Spalding, the Grammy-winning composer, performer, activist and educator, will perform Friday (Feb. 2) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, which is honoring her for a career of genre-crossing musical explorations.

“Spalding has, in the past decade of artistic journey, continually married genres, pushed boundaries and created groundbreaking work,” stated the college’s announcement. She has been named Occidental’s 2018 Hume Fellow in the Performing Arts, a honor named for the late G. William Hume, who taught music, speech and history at Occidental and served as its dean of students.

“They reached out and said, 'Hey, come!,’” says Spalding. “It sounded good. ​I’m generally in to people who want me to come and get down and do my thing.” In addition to her performance, Spalding says she’ll “do a little workshop” with music students.

Occidental, a liberal arts college founded in 1887 and located in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, has a robust music curriculum. (The works of music professor and classical composer Adam Schoenberg were recognized this year with two Grammy Award nominations). Previous recipients of the Hume Fellowship have included ​percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Larmore and Frederica von Stade, the Marian Anderson String Quartet, jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris, pianist Awadagin Pratt, and Jeffrey Kahane and members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

A singer, songwriter, bassist and band leader, Spalding, 33, most recently performed Jan. 15 as part of Winter Jazzfest in New York, in a tribute to the late jazz pianist Geri Allen, who died in 2017. She’ll appear in another tribute to Allen Feb. 22 in her hometown of Portland, Ore., joined by pianist Darrell Grant, drummer Terri Lynn Carrington and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.

Spalding released her debut album​ Junjo​ in 2006 on the Barcelona-based Ayva Musica label. In 2008, her self-titled ​Esperanza​ album arrived on Heads Up International, which also released ​Chamber Music Society​ in 2010 -- the album which led to her first Grammy nomination for best new artist. Spalding took home that honor at the 2011 Grammy Awards, victorious in a field that included Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence and the Machine and Mumford and Sons.

Radio Music Society,​ released in 2012, and the album’s track “City of Roses,” won Spalding her second and third Grammy Awards. ​Emily’s D+Evolution, ​released in 2016 on Concord Records, was widely acclaimed as Spalding took on the alter ego of Emily (the artist’s middle name) to explore themes of identity.

In September 2017, Spalding staged one of her most ambitious projects to date. She live-streamed the recording of her Concord album ​Exposure,​ over the course of 77 hours. It was a marathon masterclass in creativity and the recording process.

“You can view it like that,” she agrees. “I wasn’t thinking about it exactly in that light, but yeah! Especially for [music] engineering students. They got to witness two of the baddest engineers, Kyle Hoffman and Fernando Lodeiro,  do everything from top to bottom. It’s my favorite way to record. I like to capture liveness. I like to capture action versus pasting things together.”

Spalding is no stranger to college campuses. Education has been part of her calling from the start. After graduating from the Berklee College of Music in 2005, she become one of the youngest instructors in the Berklee’s history. Last July, Harvard University announced that Spalding had joined its faculty as a professor of practice. How did her Berklee students respond to the arrival of a teacher who was barely older than her undergraduate students?

“They were very generous,” she says. “I was basically offering them a roadmap to gain ability and understanding of ideas that they weren’t familiar with.

“I believe in the power of problem-posing education,” continues Spalding, “where I don’t profess anything. I say, 'Hey, here are some ideas that we’re going to deal with. Here are some options of how you can approach them. And here are some suggestions about how you can practice them and integrate them into your understanding, into your performance...' And I think young people -- who are sometimes even older than me -- respond really positively to that, because I’m not placing myself any higher or better than them. I mean, I do know things that they don’t. But they know things that I don’t!”

In describing Spalding’s role on its faculty, Harvard’s announcement stated the artist “will teach a range of courses in songwriting, arranging, improvisation and performance, while also bringing her commitment to music as a voice for social justice.”

Social concerns have been a constant in Esperanza’s journey. On ​Radio Music Society, ​she wrote the lyrics to the track “Endangered Species,” whose proceeds benefited EarthJustice and the Amazon Aid Foundation. On Jan. 19, 2017, she performed at The Peace Ball, staged in Washington, D.C. at the National Museum of African American History and Culture as an counterpoint to the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Spalding’s visit to Occidental College continues a long tradition of support for social activists at the school. A member of Occidental’s class of 1949, the late ​Guy Carawan, is credited with teaching a then-little-known traditional folk song to activists in 1960. “We Shall Overcome” subsequently became the enduring anthem of the civil rights movement.

In April 1967, one year before his assassination, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., came to Occidental to give a speech. “The Future of Integration.” The college marked the 50th anniversary of King’s speech last year by hosting North Carolina NAACP leader and activist Rev. Dr. William Barber who spoke on “Revival, Resilience, Redemption after Rejection: Analyzing the 2016 Election and How to Move Forward.” Both speeches took place in Occidental’s Thorne Hall, which will be the site of Spalding’s performance.

President Barack Obama also attended Occidental College as a member of the class of 1983. He made his first political speech on the Eagle Rock campus on Feb. 18, 1981, as part of a movement to persuade the Occidental Board of Trustees to divest the college of its investments in South Africa. “My years at Occidental College sparked my interest in social and political causes, and filled me with the idea that my voice could make a difference,” Obama has said. The school last year launched the Barack Obama Scholars Program to “​empower the next generation of leaders to actively pursue the public good.”

“Wow,” says Spalding, learning of Occidental’s history. “It certainly feels like hallowed ground. Any place we go can be a convening space for the propagation of transformative ideas... I like to think that anywhere I go, where I have the opportunity to meet with passionate students and teachers and laymen and laywomen, who are dedicated to finding solutions -- that’s where it happens.”