Inspired by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom she saw perform on the children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, she taught herself to play the violin at an early age. By the time she was five, she had earned a place in the local community orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Spalding performed with the group for the next 10 years, along the way learning to play the upright bass, which soon became her favoured instrument, and branching into other forms of music, including blues, hip-hop, and funk. After dropping out of high school at age 16, she received a GED and attended Portland State University before transferring to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. From there she earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 2005 and thereafter became, at the age of 20, the school’s youngest teacher. That same year she won a Boston Jazz Society scholarship for outstanding musicianship.
Spalding’s first album, Junjo (2006), showcased both her instrumental and her vocal talent. Esperanza, released in 2008, demonstrated her ability to fuse jazz with such world music as Brazilian and Argentine folk music and featured lyrics in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The record not only was critically acclaimed but also shot up the Billboard jazz album chart, on which it stayed for more than 70 weeks. This success brought her greater exposure, and she appeared on several television interview shows. Spalding played for U.S. Pres. Barack Obama three times in 2009, twice at the White House and once at that year’s Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, where he received the Prize for Peace. Meanwhile, she regularly toured with her own band while also performing with such jazz musicians as saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianists McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock as well as pop stars Prince and Stevie Wonder.
In 2010 Spalding released Chamber Music Society, on which she combined jazz, folk, and world music components with classical chamber music traditions. The album notably featured a guest appearance by famed Brazilian singer and guitarist Milton Nascimento. Early the following year Spalding was honoured with the Grammy Award for best new artist. (The award was largely unexpected; among the other nominees was teen-idol pop singer Justin Bieber.) She was the first jazz artist to win that award. Later in 2011 Spalding performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland as well as at the long-running jazz festivals in Montreal and Newport, Rhode Island. She also sang at the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony. For her fourth album, Radio Music Society (2012), Spalding moved in a more pop-friendly direction. The record, which mixed love songs (including a Michael Jackson cover) with socially charged material, debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard all-genre album chart and earned Spalding a Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album. Her later records included Emily’s D+Evolution (2016), a concept album centring on her alter ego, and 12 Little Spells (2018), which won another best jazz vocal album Grammy. In 2017 Spalding became professor of the practice at Harvard University.