On September 12, vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding embarked on an experiment she called Exposure. The project was a self-prescribed challenge—she tasked herself with composing, arranging, recording, and producing ten songs (a full album) in only 77 hours, all while continuously broadcasting her efforts on Facebook live. In doing so, she offered audiences the opportunity to tune in at any and every point of the process—even as she slept and took breaks to eat. She brought in a number of guest musicians, and audiences could also watch as she directed and collaborated with Lalah Hathaway, Robert Glasper, and Andrew Bird. In many ways, the process was the product of Exposure; only 7,777 CDs and LPs were made available for purchase, and they will ship at the end of November. At this point, no digital copies of the songs or album will be sold. For Spalding, Exposure was “about not hiding, and creating as my actual self.”
This is not the first time Spalding has taken on a radical concept to get outside of self-criticism and express herself musically. Her latest release, Emily’s D+ Evolution (2016), features Spalding as her alter-ego, Emily (her middle name); she has explained that her goal on that album was to allow Emily, “a spirit, or a being, or an aspect,” the space to express herself. “I’m [Emily’s] artistic development team,” Spalding explained to NPR. Among her other credits include becoming one of the youngest instructors at the Berklee College of Music in the institution’s history at the age of 20, performing at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies in honor of President Obama, and winning the 2011 Grammy Award for Best New Artist (beating Justin Bieber, Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons, and Drake). Other albums include Junjo (2006), Esperanza (2006), Chamber Music Society (2010), and Radio Music Society (2012). In addition to her work as a performer, she is currently professor of practice at Harvard University.
The gendered binary between popular music/femininity and high art/masculinity had largely been set by the early 1940s, when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell began to perform what would ultimately be known as bebop. Jazz critics championing these musicians understood the need to link their music to high art discourses, and in drawing connections between modern art music and modern jazz music, they relied on the same gendered constructs.
Throughout her career thus far (it is hard to remember that she is just 33 years old), Spalding has proven that hers is a unique voice in the music industry, easily crossing genre boundaries, yet continuously lauded by jazz musicians and audiences. With her past work as a performer, composer, and educator, she has established a clear place for herself within the jazz canon. But with Exposure, Spalding has created a powerful image of a young black woman within the artistic process—a young black woman as genius. In doing so, she challenges stereotypical connections between musical genius and masculinity by both fulfilling and transforming the terms by which musical genius in the jazz field is traditionally defined.
In his 2013 book The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop, Guthrie Ramsey offers a critique of the concept of musical “genius,” tracing a history of the term from the western art music tradition to bebop, a musical movement that, thanks to its male practitioners, “became the new musical language of ‘jazz manhood.’” Ramsey explains that “popular” music was often coded feminine, while western art music was serious and artistic—and therefore coded masculine. Ramsey draws on the work of Judith Tick, who writes that in the early 20th-century western art music tradition in the United States, “Although women were encouraged to study and perform music, the language of creative musical achievement was patriarchal.” Following biological terms, women could reproduce art, but only men could spawn the generative seed of creativity.
Critics, audiences, and composers often drew upon gendered distinctions in order to elevate western classical music above popular music, as the latter grew in the early twentieth century. As Andreas Huyssen writes, “The gendering of an inferior mass culture as feminine goes hand in hand with the emergence of a male mystique in modernism.” Such gendered connotations—that mass culture or popular music is “subjective, emotional, and passive,” and therefore feminine, and high culture or western art music is “objective, ironic, and in control”—ultimately resulted in the exclusion of women from canons of high art, particularly as composers. When critics, audiences, and even musicians and composers, gendered popular culture female, they made an implicit assumption that to be feminine was to be less than, or was valued as less.
The gendered binary between popular music/femininity and high art/masculinity had largely been set by the early 1940s, when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell began to perform what would ultimately be known as bebop. Jazz critics championing these musicians understood the need to link their music to high art discourses, and in drawing connections between modern art music and modern jazz music, they relied on the same gendered constructs. According to Ramsey, these jazz critics and musicologists “‘butched up’ bebop discourse by making associations between it and western art music, thus facilitat[ing] its move from pop to art.” As in the classical field, gendered ideologies in jazz likewise resulted in the privileging of the masculine over the feminine as more complex, more significant, and more musically valuable.
I focus on bebop because it has, in many ways, set the terms for present-day understandings of the jazz field. Beyond the fact that the 1990s jazz “renaissance” privileged bebop and swing over other jazz genres, much (though certainly not all) present-day jazz operates under the modus operandi set out by bebop musicians: that performances must privilege improvisation above all else. Furthermore, mid-century gendered connotations of jazz at mid-century—that it is a male-dominated music in which women are most often relegated to singing roles (another hint of the popular = feminine legacy)—continue, as I have discussed here and which was so frustratingly replayed recently in a March 2017 interview between jazz pianists Robert Glasper and Ethan Iverson.
In jazz, “genius” remained a description reserved for men, even when “exceptional” women—women who managed to make it into the jazz canon—gained recognition. In her work on Billie Holiday, Farah Jasmine Griffin makes this abundantly clear, writing,
Billie Holiday was a musical genius…Since the earliest days of our nation, black women were thought to be incapable of possessing genius … All persons of African descent were thought to be unfit for advanced intellectual endeavor. Black women in particular were body, feeling, emotion and sexuality.
Griffin highlights Holiday’s intersectionality as a black woman, rendered “less than” by being both black and a woman, writing “if white women’s abilities were questioned and debated, their humanity was not.” Further, she critiques historical narratives that portrayed Holiday as having “no understanding of her own gifts,” arguing that “it is impossible for a gifted jazz musician to lack intelligence.”
Though bebop musicians continued to rely on gendered distinctions to define musical “genius,” they also crafted key revisions to the western art music concept of “genius”; as Ramsey argues, bebop musicians saw musical interpretation and musical composition as equals, and welcomed commercial potential over “cloistered elitism.” Further, retaining the gendered connotation of musical genius allowed bebop musicians to access the male privilege associated with the term. As David Ake writes, “Given the extreme marginalization of the African-American male during the 1950s, it should come as no surprise that some musicians would be reluctant to let go of one of their few domains of perceived power.” In other words, bebop musicians forged a definition of musical genius that fulfilled their musical, commercial, and social needs.
Though bebop musicians continued to rely on gendered distinctions to define musical “genius,” they also crafted key revisions to the western art music concept of “genius”; as Ramsey argues, bebop musicians saw musical interpretation and musical composition as equals, and welcomed commercial potential over “cloistered elitism.”
Likewise, working in a musical genre that continues to be predominantly masculine in attitude and representation, Spalding crafts her own definition of musical genius that relies as much on community as it does on sole authorship. Spalding’s work on Exposure did position Spalding as the singular mind from which the mass of musical and lyrical content came. For hours, audiences watched as she brainstormed lyrics in marker on big sheets of paper posted around the recording studio. She experimented with melodies and forms by herself and with other musicians, and she recorded scratch tracks to guide musicians when they entered the studio. She directed her sound engineer, Fernando, to various areas of her stream of conscious recordings, playing back good ideas, and telling him the broader sonic portrait she had of particular songs (like that a certain section sounded “heavy metal” in her mind, or that she heard a particular line played by strings). She recorded the lyrics last and alone, on top of tracks already recorded by instrumentalists, and for the most part, the musicians who joined her took her direction, leaving melody, chord changes, and form largely unchanged by those other than Spalding herself.
Spalding’s musical control of her vision is perhaps nowhere more clear than during sessions with guest artists such as Robert Glasper, another dominant voice in current jazz and R&B fields. In her directions to the ensemble of all-male musicians, Spalding was direct and expeditious, quickly calling out the complicated form and harmonic progression of the piece they performed, directing musicians to start and stop playing, and advising on feel (the last take of her work with these musicians can be found here). At the same time, the audience witnessed a gentleness in the directions Spalding gave. For example, in attempting to direct keyboardist Ray Angry away from a synthesized string sound in between takes, Spalding interrupted his playing:
Spalding: Ray, you can j—… Can you n—… That’s the only one I can’t hear right now. [Ray: Alright.] Just that strings. It messes me up ‘cause it takes up all that space.
Spalding quickly modulates through registers of directions, beginning by focusing on Angry’s actions (“you can” and “can you”) and shifting to directions centered on Spalding’s experience of his musical decision (“I can’t hear” and “It messes me up”). Spalding, who has worked with Angry previously on Radio Music Society (2012), mediates her response, removing blame for a musical sound she seemed not to like in a manner that could build community by downplaying her own obvious authority in the group.
When recording with vocalist Lalah Hathaway and guitarist Matthew Stevens, Spalding as session leader balanced the needs of both Hathaway and Stevens. The three did several takes, with Spalding and Stevens largely happy with the group’s sound. Stevens stated several times that he believed a particular take was the take they should go with, while Hathaway remained unhappy with particular vocal lines in that take. After a couple of additional takes, Spalding seemed to agree with Stevens, but also understood that Hathaway needed more time with the vocal line. In allowing Stevens to leave and Hathaway to stay and overdub her lines, Spalding again demonstrated her ability to build group cohesion by listening to the musicians with whom she records and offering solutions to fit each individual’s needs. As Hathaway went through the piece, meticulously re-recording each line, Spalding stayed in the studio, cheering her on, even screaming and howling, interrupting Hathaway to tell her how beautiful her singing sounded on a particular phrase.
Until Exposure, Spalding’s audiences had not witnessed the live interactions between Spalding and other musicians in the act of music making. It is likely that in her extensive experience as bandleader, Spalding has honed camaraderie-building techniques, including carefully choosing her language in directing her fellow musicians and fulfilling each musician’s unique needs. But through its social media presence, Exposure revealed another form of community-building crucial to Spalding’s current project—building community with her audience.
From the beginning, Spalding was clear that she needed a live audience to hold her accountable in completing Exposure. As she explained to Billboard, “[Exposure] needed a witness. Having a witness helps us know that the stakes are real, and that we really have to do this because people are watching. We can’t be like, ‘Oh, I don’t like this one, I’m going to stop.’ We have to keep going, because people believe in us, and they’re waiting for us, and they’re with us. It felt like we were all in it together.” Spalding continued to try to explain the process, describing Exposure further as “an opening to have a shared experience,” and eventually giving up, saying, “It’s hard to talk about what we all went through together—if you saw it, you know.”
… the audience was offering information that got Spalding what she needed. By the end of the week, frequent commenters became familiar with one another, and engaged in conversation. In the near continuous stream of comments on the Facebook live video, many viewers expressed that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event in which viewers from around the world could witness musical genius live.
Indeed, those of us who watched Exposure unfold that week in September do know the struggle Spalding has in describing the experience to those who did not. The live stream kept a count of how many viewers were watching together, and viewers offered frequent reactions (likes/loves/sad) to what happened minute by minute. As the week went on, Spalding’s behind the scenes team (PR people, interns) seemed to realize that viewers were actively responding to Spalding’s statements and music through comments; at one point, Spalding tried to determine the scientific properties of a particular metal, and eventually asked the Facebook live audience. Soon, the audience was offering information that got Spalding what she needed. By the end of the week, frequent commenters became familiar with one another, and engaged in conversation. In the near continuous stream of comments on the Facebook live video, many viewers expressed that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event in which viewers from around the world could witness musical genius live. Ultimately, Spalding created community by exposing her musical process to her fans, building a space for audience members to gather and dialogue with one another, offering a sense of “togetherness” in a live act that actually calculated the number of viewers watching, and engaging in occasional dialogue with the Facebook live audience.
By most measures of musical genius, whether from European classical music or jazz fields, Spalding deserves recognition: she is simultaneously an anti-commercial musician who frequently criticizes the music recording industry (see comments here regarding her apathy toward the importance of beauty in the music business and here for her view of artistry as opposed to business) and an incredibly business-savvy, image-conscious commercial artist who manages to be successful in a field many fret is dying. Spalding places considerable emphasis on musical composition in her own records, but as a jazz musician, has also prioritized her interpretation of jazz standards in live performance. If musical genius requires performing with other musical genius, Spalding’s frequent performances with jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea would qualify her as such. Further, if genius is built on accolades, Spalding has enough to merit the title.
… her community-based approach offers a broader view of the concept of musical genius, one that encompasses the ability with which a musician works with others to bring about a musical product.
But who determines genius? Who decides if someone or something is important enough? We have not asked this question enough; perhaps if we had, female genius, and especially black female genius, would not be quite so difficult to recognize.
By exposing a version of her musical process, Spalding makes visible a young, black, woman genius at work, performing what she herself believed might be an impossible task (composing, recording, and producing an album of 10 songs in 77 hours). Her youth, race, and gender alone would be enough to challenge traditional concepts of genius, which have long been dominated by masculine connotations. However, her community-based approach offers a broader view of the concept of musical genius, one that encompasses the ability with which a musician works with others to bring about a musical product. Audiences not only witnessed Spalding in the act of creation—indeed, in the many moments of creation that constitute a song’s composition—but saw her create with others, and further, were made part of that creation. In doing so, Spalding seems to suggest that the dual concepts of community and collaboration be considered defining features of musical genius.