Not My Job: Jazz Bassist Esperanza Spalding Gets Quizzed On Bases
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we invite on geniuses to answer questions that only require a tiny fraction of their amazing mind. Esperanza Spalding seemingly came out of nowhere - a brilliant jazz prodigy on the bass who won the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011, beating out the favorite of that year, some Canadian upstart named Justin Bieber. She has spent the five years since then touring the world, making new music and hiding from mobs of angry 13-year-old girls.
SAGAL: Esperanza Spalding joins us now from an undisclosed location. Esperanza, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: Hey, hey, hey.
SAGAL: So there are more origin stories for you out there than there are for, like, Batman.
SAGAL: So could you tell us the story - you were growing up in a rough section of Portland, Ore., right?
SPALDING: Yeah, and I was walking in this dark tunnel and a penguin came out and attacked my parents.
SPALDING: And I vowed from that moment on - yes, I did grow up in a rough neighborhood in Portland, which is an abstract concept for anybody who's rolled through Portland because now it looks like a TV set, literally.
SAGAL: It really does.
SPALDING: When I read, you know, a rough neighborhood of Portland, I'm like - what? - they didn't have kombucha bars there? I mean...
SPALDING: Exactly, it was rough. Our green juice was, like, only kale.
SAGAL: Oh no.
SAGAL: But the various stories of how you came to music - I read one that you were inspired by Yo-Yo Ma on "Mr. Rogers?"
SPALDING: Yeah, yeah. And wildly enough, later I saw a tape of that episode. And when he goes to make the leave land (ph) - the two women characters are playing an upright bass, and the other one is dressed as an upright bass. So I think it was, like, some subconscious hypnotism that happened when I was 5.
SPALDING: And I ended up playing the bass later.
SAGAL: Now, you, of course - Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello, quite famously.
SAGAL: You ended up playing the upright bass, which is much larger. Was it because you were so small at the time, so his cello appeared enormous?
SPALDING: ...To scale...
SPALDING: No, I didn't know the word cello, so I said string thing - violin? And my mom got a violin. And then when I saw that bass, I said nope, that's what I wanted the whole time.
SAGAL: Really? Well, what drew you to playing the bass?
SPALDING: Nothing that I can recall. But the sound is tremendous, you know? It sits on your hip bones and it vibrates your vibrator skeleton. And it's, like, kind of musically orgasmic. It's incredible, I have to confess. It's purely for self-interest of pleasure.
LUKE BURBANK: What's crazy is...
BURBANK: ...That's the dirtiest thing anyone's said on public radio. And it's all totally allowable.
SPALDING: I can start, like, a hotline where we talk about jazz.
SAGAL: A lot of musicians are looking at their cellos and violas and going you've never given me any pleasure.
SAGAL: You were a jazz musician growing up in Portland. Were, like - were the streets of Portland at that time in your neighborhood filled with, like, jazz bands?
SPALDING: No. But there was a lot of music here. I mean, you know it's a music town.
SPALDING: And there's a really beautiful philosophy of mentorship here. So up-and-coming musicians can easily reach out and find a loving teacher, and that's definitely what happened to me.
SAGAL: Oh, wow.
SPALDING: Yeah, and...
SAGAL: You have yourself become a teacher, right? You were the youngest person ever to teach at the Berklee School of Music?
SPALDING: Yes, probably unfortunately for my students, but I had a good time.
SAGAL: That's important.
SAGAL: Did you ever run into a student that was older than you were?
SPALDING: Yeah, and taller and more experienced - yeah, of course. And I just said, you know, I'm getting paid so whatever...
BURBANK: The students were like...
BURBANK: ...Ms. Spalding's class is interesting, but she's got a weird relationship with that bass.
SAGAL: Do you have your own bass, or are you, shall we say...
SPALDING: Polyamorous (laughter).
SAGAL: Polyamorous with basses because I'm just - it must be a pain in the butt because this is an enormous instrument. It must be a pain in the butt to carry the damn thing around.
SPALDING: That is the drawback. But then I look at what drummers go through of, like, lugging their gear from here to there and setting it up, and I think no, it's OK. It's just big, and fortunately I'm uncomfortable with the concept the bass de jure. So I travel - we have a little, you know, blind date, get to know each other, do the gig and it's all good, you know?
SAGAL: Is there, like...
SPALDING: I don't know what the hell's up with this allegory. I can't - I can't seem to get...
SAGAL: I have to talk to you about 2011. You won the Grammy for Best New Artist. That is, like, the first time they ever gave that award to a jazz musician. Is that right?
SPALDING: Uh-huh, at least an openly jazz musician, yeah.
SAGAL: You were out and proud. You were not one of...
SAGAL: ...Those closeted jazz guys.
SPALDING: Exactly, exactly.
SAGAL: And everybody that year expected it was going to be Justin Bieber because he had just released his first record.
SPALDING: Yeah, including me.
SAGAL: You thought it was going to be Justin Bieber.
SPALDING: Of course.
SAGAL: And when they announced your name, what did you think?
SPALDING: Nothing, at all.
SPALDING: I just - nope, I didn't say anything because it was - it didn't even register, nothing registered. It was like this void of silence. I was like oh, my God, I have to remember to thank this person, that person, this person. Why didn't I plan a speech? This is horrible. What am I going to do? Don't fall on your face. This dress is too long. Are you wearing a bra? Did you put on deodorant? Oh, my God...
SPALDING: Yeah, it was like an automatic reel of concerns that just started automatically playing when I heard my name. And it played until I got to the stage and actually kept playing as I was speaking. So I don't even remember that moment, to tell you the truth.
SAGAL: That's amazing. I mean, I'm sure you wished that you could've just been back in the arms of your bass.
SAGAL: Esperanza Spalding, we are delighted to talk to you. And we have invited you here to a play game we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: All Your Base Are Belong To Us.
SPALDING: Hmm, OK.
SAGAL: So you famously play the bass and maybe more. So we thought we'd ask you about three other kinds of bases. Get 2 out of 3 right, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kassel's voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is Esperanza Spalding playing for?
KURTIS: Ken Powell from Pittsburgh, Pa.
SAGAL: All right.
SPALDING: Right on, right on, OK.
SAGAL: Your first base is BASE jumping - that is jumping off high buildings or mountains with a parachute that hopefully opens before you hit the ground. Which of these is a real BASE jumper? Is it A, Whisper the BASE-jumping dog, B, Amber Sky, an exotic dancer/base jumper who wears only a parachute...
SAGAL: ...Or C, the Flying McDaniels, an entire family of four who jumps off cliffs strapped to each other?
SPALDING: So you want to know which one is real?
SAGAL: Yes, I do.
SPALDING: I bet it's Amber Sky, and I bet she's from Portland, Ore.
SAGAL: I will say this, Esperanza, knowing Portland as I do, if Amber Sky existed, she would be from Portland.
SPALDING: (Laughter) OK.
SAGAL: But it was really Whisper, the BASE-jumping dog.
SAGAL: Whisper is the pet of noted adventurer Dean Potter, who straps Whisper to his back and jumps off things.
SPALDING: And PETA's OK with this?
SAGAL: I - you know, we'll have to find out.
SAGAL: Maybe they're just hearing about it now.
SAGAL: All right, you still have two more chances. Second base is baseball, the great American pastime.
SPALDING: Oh no.
SAGAL: One of the worst baseball players ever was one Smead Jolley. Mr. Jolly was an outfielder during the 1930s, and he is famous in baseball history as being the only major-league player ever to do what? A, to run the bases backwards - third to second to first, where he was easily put out...
SAGAL: ...B, while playing the outfield, he committed three errors all by himself on one play or C, once again in the outfield he missed an easy pop fly because he was busy trying to teach a pigeon a trick.
SPALDING: I think I'm going to go with the first one. He ran the bases backward.
SAGAL: Following your instincts has brought you everywhere you are today, so who am I to argue? In this case, of course, you were wrong. He...
SAGAL: ...Committed three errors all by himself. This is what happened - grounder to outfielder, goes through his legs, first error. He turns around, it bounces off the outfield wall, rolls back towards him, goes through his legs again...
SAGAL: ...Second error. Finally, he grabs the ball, throws it to the cutoff man, sails it way over his head - three errors, one play, never been surpassed. All right...
SAGAL: ...You have one more question.
SAGAL: And the third base is Ace of Base, the great Swedish pop group. Early on, they almost didn't make it. They almost failed before they ever had a chance. The producer they sent their demo to just didn't like it, but that producer changed his mind when what happened? A, he visited an IKEA for the first time...
SAGAL: ...And just fell in love with all things Swedish, B, the tape got stuck in his tape deck in his car and he was forced to listen to it over and over for two weeks at which point he started liking it, or C, he saw the sign and it opened up his eyes...
SPALDING: Yeah, yeah.
SAGAL: ...He saw the sign.
SPALDING: Just opened up his eyes and saw the sign.
SPALDING: I think it has to be the second.
SAGAL: You're right, it was.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SPALDING: I don't know about baseball.
SAGAL: How did you know?
SPALDING: (Laughter) Yeah...
SAGAL: Yeah, after two weeks, he heard something in Ace of Base's music he didn't hear the first time. And he said I think I'm going to produce this. Bill, how did...
SPALDING: Yeah because that happens to us all.
SAGAL: Does it really?
SAGAL: Is that what happened to you?
SPALDING: Oh, my God, it's happened to me a lot with something that I think, like, meh. And then it keeps coming back, and it becomes an earworm and I realize that I love it.
SAGAL: There you are.
SPALDING: Yeah, yeah.
SAGAL: Bill, how did Esperanza Spalding do on our quiz?
KURTIS: She's got game. She got one right, and we love having her here, Esperanza.
SAGAL: Esperanza Spalding's new album is "Emily's D+Evolution." It is astounding. She is out on tour. Esperanza, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME. What a pleasure to talk with you.
SPALDING: Thank you, my pleasure.
SPALDING: Thank you.
SAGAL: Thank you so much, bye-bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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