Grammys 2011: Who Is Esperanza Spalding, Best New Artist Winner?

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Music fans and television audiences were divided over many things during last night's Grammy Awards telecast—country act Lady Antebellum's sweep of the major awards, Bob Dylan's maybe comatose/maybe brilliant performance—but there was one moment during which they were all united. When Jewel and John Legend announced that the winner for Best New Artist—beating out popular nominees Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence + the Machine, and Mumford and Sons—was jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, there was a collective, national, "Who?!"

As it turns out, the 26-year-old Grammy-winner is highly prolific in her genre. The album that qualified her for this year's awards, Chamber Music Society, is actually her third record (a new Grammy rule allows rising acts to have released up the three previous albums and still be eligible for Best New Artist). And from the Obamas to Prince, she's already played for some impressive audiences, and has an even brighter future:

...she's a highly skilled and highly marketable musician. She's obviously photogenic and preternaturally poised in the spotlight, be it on national TV, performing for President Barack Obama three times (twice at the White House, once at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony), headlining sold-out shows across North America and Europe, paying tribute to Prince, opening for Prince, co-hosting the Grammy pre-telecast ceremony, or receiving a Grammy herself. This, plus her backstory, youth (she's 26, oldest among the nominees but young as acclaimed jazz performers go) and virtuosic talent, make her a natural spokesperson for an American art form, and the recipient of some crossover attention.

About that talent. As a bassist, she was tapped to teach at Berklee College of Music—her alma mater—at age 20, and plays in bands with today's top-tier jazz musicians.

Here she is performing at the White House in May 2009:


Read the full story at NPR Jazz's A Blog Supreme.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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