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Not My Job: Jazz Bassist Esperanza Spalding Gets Quizzed On Bases

BILL KURTIS: If we've failed to prove to you that 2016 wasn't so bad, if you're feeling a little blue, then all you need to do is listen to Esperanza Spalding.


Even if you don't care for her eclectic music, you can enjoy the fact that she once beat out Justin Bieber for a Grammy. Esperanza Spalding joined us in March.




SAGAL: So there are more origin stories for you out there than there are for, like, Batman.


SAGAL: So could you tell us a 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.

SAGAL: Yeah (laughter).

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 'cause now it looks like a TV set literally.

SAGAL: It really does.


SAGAL: When I read, you know, a rough neighborhood of Portland, I'm like what? They didn't have kombucha bars there?

SPALDING: Exactly. It was rough. It was - our green juice was like only kale.

SAGAL: Oh, no.


SAGAL: But the various stories about 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-believe land, 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...

SAGAL: Right.

SPALDING: ...And I ended up playing the bass later.

SAGAL: Now, you, of course - Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello quite famously.

SPALDING: Correct.

SAGAL: You ended up playing the upright bass which is much larger. Was it because you were so small at the time...

SPALDING: (Unintelligible).

SAGAL: ...So his cello appeared enormous?

SPALDING: The scale.

SAGAL: Yeah.

SPALDING: No. I didn't know the word for 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?

SPALDING: The sound is tremendous, you know? It sits on your hip bone, and it vibrates your skeleton. And it's like kind of musically orgasmic. It's incredible. I have to confess. It's purely for self-interest of pleasure.



ADAM FELBER: What's crazy is that's the dirtiest thing anyone's said on public radio, and it's all totally allowable. Yeah.

SPALDING: I can start like a hotline where we talk...

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.

SAGAL: Yeah.

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've - 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. Did you ever run into a student who 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.



SPALDING: No, I'm just kidding.

SAGAL: The students were like 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 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 comfortable with the concept of bass du jour, 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: Wow. Is there like...

SPALDING: I don't know what the hell's up with this allegory. I can't seem to get the allegory.


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 those closeted jazz guys.

SPALDING: 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 registered. It was like this void of silence. I was like, oh, my God. I have to remember to thank this person, that person and 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: It was like an automatic reel of concerns that were - 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 wish that you could have just been back in the arms of your bass.


SAGAL: Esperanza Spalding, we were delighted to talk to you. And we have invited you here to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: All Your Base Are Belong To Us.

SAGAL: So you famously play the bass and maybe more, so we thought we'd ask you about three other kinds of bases. You get two out of three right, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is Esperanza Spalding playing for?

KURTIS: Kim Powell (ph) from Pittsburgh, Penn.

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; 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 is 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. 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. 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.


SAGAL: One of the worst baseball players ever was one Smeed Jolly. 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; 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 might argue?

SPALDING: (Laughter).

SAGAL: In this case, of course, you are wrong.


SAGAL: He 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. The 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.


SAGAL: All right. 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, he just fell in love with all things Swedish; B, the tape got stuck in his tape deck in his car, 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.

SAGAL: Yeah.

SPALDING: I think it has to be the second.

SAGAL: You're right. It was.


SAGAL: How...

SPALDING: OK. OK. I don't know about...

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, 'cause that happens to us all. What do you want?

SAGAL: Does it really?


SAGAL: Has that what happened to you?

SPALDING: Oh, my God. It's happened to me a lot with somebody 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.


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, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME. What a pleasure to talk to you.

SPALDING: Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you.


SAGAL: That does it for our look back at some of the more bearable moments of 2016. Support for our show comes from NPR stations and Ballard Spahr, a national law firm providing services and litigation, compliance and transactions to clients across industries, assessing the impact of national events and legal developments to keep clients informed. Learn more at ballardspahr.com. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, working to improve the quality of people's lives by supporting the performing arts, the environment, medical research and child well-being. Information is available at ddcf.org. And the Walton Family Foundation, working to prepare all students for a lifetime of opportunity by ensuring access to high quality K-12 choices. More information is available at waltonk12.org.

WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME is a production of NPR and WBEZ Chicago in association with Urgent Haircut Productions, Doug Berman, Benevolent Overlord. BJ Leiderman composed our theme. Our program is produced by Robin Linn and Miles Doornbos with Candace Mittel. Technical director is Lorna White. Her CFO is Ann Nguyen. Our production coordinator is Robert Neuhaus. Our senior producer Ian Chillag and the executive producer of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME is Mr. Michael Linwood Danforth.

Thanks to Bill Kurtis, thanks to our panelists and our guests. And thanks to all of you for listening. I am Peter Sagal, and we will see you next week.


SAGAL: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.