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Esperanza Spalding on Why Jazz Isn’t Mainstream and the Benefits of Being Hot

Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding says one of the reasons jazz music has a difficult time becoming more mainstream is that by the time an artist gets good enough and polished enough to be really celebrated, he’s a middle-aged man who no longer fits into mainstream society’s image of what’s sexy.

“It takes decades to get the music to a place where it’s worth sharing, and that’s what you get [middle-aged men],” Spalding, 27, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The beauty of this craft is, it shouldn’t be about who’s prettiest or fastest or strongest or has the coolest clothes. Those are all details that can be sprinkled on top. But we’re in a culture that is obsessed with youth and women and body types and looking cool and hip and selling clothes and products. And the basic tenets of the music don’t align themselves very well with those requirements.”

Spalding, who is making the rounds to promote her new “Radio Music Society” album, said American culture has pushed the necessity of physical attractiveness in the music business so far that we are denying ourselves the opportunity to hear incredible talent.

“It’s a pity that if someone who has a really profoundly potent art to share chooses not to or doesn’t fit into this very thin slice of what’s desirable and marketable, chances are the public will never get a chance to hear what they’re doing,” she said.

Spalding acknowledged that at the moment, with her winsome beauty, she does happen to fit into the slice of what’s marketable. And she has found a way to make it help other musicians.

“Because I know aspects of my image fit into that thin slice, I want to take people with me, hoping that through the music they’ll get exposed to an audience they might not get exposed to because of the stigma about image,” she said.

Is it a disadvantage in her industry to be young and hot?

“I think it’s something that young women — and young men — will fall into because of what they see as a necessity to be appealing,” she said. “Actually, it doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day, the music speaks for itself. That’s the beauty of the music, but sometimes when we dress that way, we’ll attract support from investors who want to capitalize on the image and are less concerned about the content of the art… I don’t make room for that kind of pressure. All the people that by now are in my circle know I don’t lean that way. At the beginning, people approached me with those sorts of ideas and I didn’t let them stick around.”

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