When Esperanza Spalding was still a senior at Boston's Berklee College of Music, the jazz singer and bassist had a startling moment of self-recognition. Traveling on a bus into the city, she glanced up at the college – briefly visible from the highway – and saw a multistory poster of herself on the wall of The Berklee Performance Center. "I had no idea!," she exclaims.
The billboard, an early indicator of stardom in 2005, is appropriate for a larger-than-life personality who, at age 20, became the youngest faculty member in the college's history. Now, Ms. Spalding is having a different kind of banner year. She's about to appear on David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel as her second album of Latin jazz knocks on the door of mainstream success.
Remarkably, it's not a "crossover record." A couple of the songs are in Portuguese, for starters. As her voice sambas over vibrant South American rhythms and her Elastigirl fingers climb up and down the double-bass's skyscraper neck, you'd swear the girl was from Ipanema, not Portland, Ore. Even people who think they don't like jazz may respond to the melodies on "Esperanza."
"[Musicians] are taking more risks, adding more colors and sounds to the music, ultimately to the benefit of the listener," she says in a phone interview.
"I recognized right away that she had a lot to say and was also unlike any musician I had ever run across before," raves legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, in an e-mail. "Her unique quality is something that goes beyond her pretty amazing musical skills; She has that rare 'x' factor of being able to transmit a certain personal kind of vision and energy that is all her own."
Growing up in a single-parent household, Spalding was introduced to a world beyond the gunfire in her inner-city neighborhood by a Yo-Yo Ma appearance on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Instead of trying cello, she taught herself rudimentary violin. By age 5, she'd been welcomed into The Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Ten years later she was its concert master.
After enrolling in high school, she ditched the violin once she discovered bass. At 15, she left home and then, a year later, left high school with a GED to continue a musical apprenticeship on the local club circuit. Home schooling, she says, made her realize "how much time was being wasted in the classroom."
The singer's love of learning hasn't dimmed. When her mother recently shared an inspirational Thornton Wilder passage about women overcoming adversity, for example, Spalding posted the "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" excerpt on her MySpace blog.
Also on her MySpace page: A black- and-white television clip from the early to mid-1960s of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an African-American rhythm and blues artist, playing wild electric guitar in front of a gospel choir. Spalding wants everyone to know about the little-known singer she calls "the mother of rock 'n' roll."
"My alarm clock wakes me up to a local jazz station every morning, and she was guest singing on some big-band recording," she recalls. "I remembered her name and so when I finally woke up and got out of bed, I investigated who she was. I bought a book about her life and one of her records and put that YouTube up there once I found it."
Being an African-American woman herself, Spalding is worried that her successes – such as a scholarship to Berklee at age 16 – might be attributed to affirmative action. The work ethic spurred by that concern led her to commute three hours from Boston's outer suburbs each day – lugging an instrument shaped like a pregnant giraffe – to attend Berklee when she couldn't afford a city apartment.
"I remember many times being on the commuter rail and young kids my age, or even guys I thought were cute, looking at me and going, 'This woman is out of her mind!' " she laughs.
An audition to spend a summer touring with jazz singer Patti Austin turned her finances around. Later, her experience as a performer led to Berklee hiring her as an instructor after graduation.
"She has a seriousness about her, even though she's very relaxed, that I appreciate," says Rich Appleman, chair of Berklee's bass department. "That's one of the reasons she's gone on to teach in addition to perform."
This year Spalding is relishing a tour and the prospect of artistic growth. "I have a lot to learn," she says. "I'm trying to do an art form that takes decades to [master]."