THE BIGGEST UPSET of the 2011 Grammy Awards was when Austin-based jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding won for Best New Artist.
A broad contingent of Spalding’s fans, especially within but certainly not limited to the jazz community, knew she possessed winning musicianship. But few believed she had even a puncher’s chance at the actual award. Especially for its highest-profile categories, the Grammys tend to reward top-selling acts signed to major record labels, regardless of musical merit. And with teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber in the running — not to mention Drake, Florence and the Machine, and Mumford and Sons — her missing out seemed a foregone conclusion. The Recording Academy had never given this honor to a jazz artist before.
Consider this: Spalding’s most recent album at the time, the string-soaked, independently released Chamber Music Society, received zero Grammy nominations — and just as much airplay on commercial radio. Much of the mainstream pop audience, which heard her name for the first time at the ceremony, surely thought: Esperanza who? (One angry Justin Bieber fan vandalized Spalding’s Wikipedia entry by writing, among other things, “WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY?”)
The easy answer is that she’s a highly skilled and highly marketable musician. She’s obviously photogenic and preternaturally poised in the spotlight, be it performing for Barack Obama three times during his presidency (twice at the White House, once at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony), headlining sold-out shows across North America and Europe, opening for Prince, co-hosting the Grammy pre-telecast ceremony or receiving a Grammy herself. Her youth and virtuosic talent made her a natural spokesperson for an American art form.
Predictably, Twitter blew up following the announcement, with jazz aficionados unable to conceal their delight. Bassist Philip Booth wrote, “OMG moment of the #Grammys: A bona-fide jazz musician, superb bassist and singer won Best New Artist!” Vocalist Diana Reeves added, “Esperanza won best artist because she truly is!” No telling if critic Nate Chinen followed up on his tweet, sent just before the winner was announced: “If Esperanza wins this, I’ll go out and make a snow angel, naked.”
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