Esperanza Emily Spalding was born on October 18, 1984, in Portland, Oregon and was a musical prodigy, playing violin in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon at age five. She was later both self-taught and -trained on a number of instruments, including guitar and bass. Her proficiency earned her scholarships to Portland State University and the Berklee College of Music.
She has won four Grammy Awards, including the Grammy Award for Best New Artist at the 53rd Grammy Awards, making her the first jazz artist to win the award.
Spalding began performing live in clubs in Portland, Oregon, as a teenager, securing her first gig at 15 in a blues club, when she could play only one line on bass. One of the seasoned musicians with which she played that first night invited her to join the band's rehearsals "so she could actually learn something," and her rehearsals soon grew into regular performances spanning almost a year. According to Spalding, it was a chance for her to stretch as a musician, reaching and growing beyond her experience. Her early contact with these "phenomenal resources," as she calls the musicians who played with her, fostered her sense of rhythm and helped nurture her interest in her instrument.
She does not consider herself a musical prodigy, having said, "I am surrounded by prodigies everywhere I go, but because they are a little older than me, or not a female, or not on a major label, they are not acknowledged as such."
Spalding left high school at 16, and after completing her GED, enrolled in a music scholarship in the music program at Portland State University, where she remembers being "the youngest bass player in the program." Although she lacked the training of her fellow students, she feels that her teachers nevertheless recognized her talent. She decided to apply to Berklee College of Music on the encouragement of her bass teacher, and did well enough in her audition to receive a full scholarship.
When asked in 2008 why she plays the bass instead of some other instrument, Spalding said that it was not a choice, but the bass "had its own arc" and resonated with her. Spalding has said that, for her, discovering the bass was like "waking up one day and realizing you're in love with a co-worker." By the time she randomly picked up the bass in music class and began experimenting with it, she had grown bored with her other instruments. Her band teacher showed her a blues line for the bass that she later used to secure her first gig. After that, she went in to play the bass daily and gradually fell in love
In November 2011, Spalding won "Jazz Artist of the Year" at the Boston Music Awards.
Spalding collaborated with Tineke Postma on the track "Leave Me a Place Underground" from the album The Dawn of Light in 2011. She also collaborated with Terri Lyne Carrington on the album The Mosaic Project, where she features on the track "Crayola". Spalding also sang a duet with Nicholas Payton on the track "Freesia" from the 2011 album Bitches of Renaissance.
In the 53rd 2011 Grammy Awards, Spalding won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, beating Justin Bieber, Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons, and Drake. Bieber's fans targeted Spalding on the Internet, stating that she was not as popular as Bieber and that he should have won the award.
In March 2016, she released her fifth studio album, Emily's D+Evolution, released by Concord Records. She was also featured on the NOVA production The Great Math Mystery, talking about the connection between music and mathematics.