If my recent trip to Asia taught me anything, it’s that I have something in common with John Mayer besides a burning desire to write the most emo and trivial pop music humanly possible. Still, there are exceptions to my Jim-Crow-in-the-bedroom policy, and Esperanza Spalding is one of them.
Miss Spalding isn’t exactly a secret in the music business any more: President Obama’s invited her to the White House and she has a very slick and expensive-to-make CD/DVD release on shelves at the moment. She’s so freakin’ famous that United Airlines currently has her “Radio Music Society” as one of just thirty-six jazz albums available for their international-flight customers. She probably has one-thousandth the name recognition of Nikki Minaj, but among adults and the college-educated she’s a Big Deal.
You might already be a fan of hers, in which case you know that she used a Fender Jaco Pastorius Signature to record “Radio”. (Full bragging, I mean, disclosure: your humble author also owns one.) The Jaco bass is all over the materials that accompany her CD and she plays it exclusively in all her recent videos. So why, exactly, has she started playing a gorgeous but decidedly unlabeled five-string bass from a micro-luthier?
First, the answer to the obvious question: it’s a David Gage fretless. I’m sure it sounds wonderful, and it looks very attractively contoured. It’s not quite a Jazz Bass or P-Bass shape; like a PRS or Carvin, you sacrifice some of the traditional electric-guitar proportions for ease of play and balance. I have no idea what it costs but five grand probably isn’t too far out of the ballpark. Maybe ten, if the woods are exotic. But no more.
A better question would be: Why is Esperanza Spalding paying anybody for a bass guitar? Maybe she didn’t. Perhaps it’s a gift from David Gage, or a loaner instrument designed to bring his brand to a wider audience. I sure as hell hadn’t heard of the guy before today and I consider myself a bit of an expert regarding obscure high-end guitar builders.
Let’s come up with a question that makes even more sense. Why isn’t anybody paying Esperanza to play their major-label instrument? More specifically, why isn’t Fender cashing her out? A look at the company’s artist roster reveals quite a few people without Miss Spalding’s popularity. There’s even a female bassist in there, whose primary credits include sessions with lighter-than-air pop producer Narada Michael Walden. But no Esperanza Spalding, despite the fact that she prominently appeared and performed with a Fender product for a couple of years. The company has a few mentions of her, but that’s all. The most popular female jazz bass player in modern history has no endorsement contract worth mentioning.
On the other hand, there’s Sekou Bunch. Mr. Bunch, who is primarily famous for playing the iconic bassline on Funkin’ For Jamaica and for appearing on one season of “Survivor”, has a fantastic endorsement contract with Carvin. His signature basses, the SB4000 and SB5000, are the number-one-selling product the company makes, according to a phone call I took with one of their reps in San Diego. Both the SB4000 and SB5000 are completely unique designs with unique electronics and a variety of Sekou-designed touches. (Full disclosure: your humble author owns two SB basses at the moment and has owned others in the past.) Carvin supports Sekou on tour as both a performer and an instructor. The collaboration has become so popular that Carvin now lists sub-endorsers on their website and in their catalogs: recognized session and touring musicians who have also chosen the SB5000 or SB4000.
Mr. Bunch has a record, 2008’s The Next Level. You won’t find it on United flights, or at President Obama’s parties, or anywhere in particular. I’m the only person I’ve ever met who owns a copy. Sekou freely admits it hasn’t set the world on fire. He’s a working musician in the truest sense of the term: music pays him like a middle-class job. If he stopped playing tomorrow, he’d be in trouble. Much of his income comes from Carvin, as a matter of fact.
So let’s review. The hottest jazz bassist in America can’t get a signature product, or at least can’t get a deal on her terms. A session bassist who can be heard in the background of Anita Baker records has the hottest bass on the market. What’s going on?
At this point I have to ask the delicate of constitution, the easily offended, and the politically ideological to leave the page. Go ahead. Just click another link and come back next time. You’ll feel better if you do, I promise.
Still with me? Okay. The answer is this: Esperanza’s a girl and Sekou’s a better bet to endorse a bass guitar than she is.
Cue deep intake of breath, right? Did I just write that? I’m afraid so. This is one of those times when reality has to take precedence over pleasantries.
In the pleasant world of puppies and kittens, Miss Spalding would have her own signature Fender bass. Hell, maybe they’d stop doing Jaco signatures — Jaco’s been dead for thirty-some years and he was pretty far down the slide of self-destruction when he died — and rename it the Esperanza Spalding Signature. It’s what a government in the United States would do: take something named after a white guy (Jaco’s as white as George Zimmerman, right?) and name it after a striking young woman of color whom, it must be said, I would personally tap the ass of until the sun rose the next morning, given the chance.
In the real world, however, Jaco’s name will sell bass guitars until the year 2100 and Sekou Bunch won’t be far behind him. The reason is simple: bass guitarists are, by and large, men. There are a few female bassists, for sure. In fact, we can take a moment to watch one who is quite lovely:
I hope you enjoyed that as much as I enjoy it every time I watch it. Just watch her face when she’s really into it. Yes, she’s eighteen years old, so anything you’re thinking is completely legal. I checked. Now back to reality. Most bass players are men. Just accept it.
Why do we have “signature” guitars? It’s simple. As a friend of mine said a long time ago: “you want to be powerful like the bear so you’re wearing its skin to take its power.” Signature guitars are the modern equivalent of Excalibur. Power in an instrument. You wield an exact replica of Jimmy Page’s or John Mayer’s guitar and you have some of the man’s power. It’s deeply satisfying at a subconscious level that a thousand years of forcing successive generations of children to watch crap like “Dora the Explorer” won’t be able to touch. The adult, educated, conscious mind knows that the Jaco Pastorius Signature Model you’re holding was made three years ago and that Jaco never even knew of its existence. The subconscious mind places you standing next to Joni Mitchell at the Hollywood Bowl or jamming through the ECM sessions for “Bright Size Life”.
That ritual, that conscious evocation of Pastorius or Page, is prehistoric in nature and it lives in a box with other emotions of similar vintage. It’s magical and it’s about power and being and shit like that. Therefore, while I might personally admire Miss Esperanza Spalding as a bassist, and I do admire Miss Esperanza Spalding as a bassist, I don’t want to be her. Consciously, subconsciously, whatever. I don’t want to wear her skin. I don’t want to be a cute Black woman with an awesome Afro. I might want to sleep next to her (and I do) but I don’t want to assume her identity.
Jaco Pastorius, on the other hand… yeah, I’ll wear his skin. He’s a hero of mine. In sickness and health, really. He’s the man. Sekou Bunch? I’ve met him, played bass with him briefly. He’s a cool-ass dude. I admire him and I’m willing to emulate him, buy his signature product, the whole deal. If Sekou came out with a signature energy drink I’d take some to my next gig. And I bought his signature basses because I was willing to pay to have his name associated with a product I’m using.
The people in charge of turning our society into a feckless paradise of genderless construction can’t stand the idea that little boys choose men to be their role models and little girls choose women to be their role models. They want to create Barbie-blank creatures who imprint on Keith Richards and Adele with equal frequency but they haven’t quite figured out yet how to beat a hundred thousand years of human evolution that ruthlessly programmed my son to want to kill things and lead groups of people and be the loudest voice in a conversation. Nor are they quite likely to succeed at that goal any time soon. Little boys want to be big men. It’s their primary motivator. It’s their desire.
The people who make big bucks in marketing and advertising figured out a long time ago that you don’t market to needs, you market to desires. Putting Esperanza’s name on a bass guitar might signify that it meets all requirements of a bass guitar and can be used to play some really great music really well, but that’s all need-based stuff. Putting Jaco’s name on a bass says “you can be like Jaco”. That’s a zillion times more powerful.
At this point, some of my more musically-oriented readers might say, “What about the Grace Potter Flying V?” I’m glad you asked. It was a bad-ass guitar on its own merits — neat color, good configuration. But go try to buy one today, less than a year after its introduction.
Q.E. motherfuckin’ D. Someday, things might be different. If more girls play guitar and, more critically, if those girls choose female guitarists as their role models. Until then, in the world of signature instruments, with all the aspirations and incarnation incantations they represent, Grace Potter is dead, but Jaco Pastorius is alive and well.