Ernestine Anderson launched her amazing career as a jazz singer while still a teenaged Seattle high school student back in the 1940s. By the 1950s she was an experienced performer who'd toured widely and sung with big-name bands led by Johnny Otis, Lionel Hampton, and Eddie Heywood. Anderson's debut album brought rave reviews from leading music critics which led to her being included in the all-star lineup at the very first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958, and she was soon heralded as an important new singing star by both Time and down beat magazines. In the succeeding decades, she cut more than 30 albums of sophisticated and sensual jazz and blues music, received four GRAMMY award nominations, and was honored with a command performance at the White House.
Born to Sing
Ernestine Anderson (and her twin sister Josephine) were born to their proud parents, Erma and Joseph, in Houston, Texas on November 11, 1928. By the tender age of 3, Anderson showed a knack for singing along with her parents' old blues 78 rpm records by the likes of Bessie “The Empress of the Blues” Smith.
“My parents used to play blues records all the time,” Anderson recalled. “John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, all the blues greats. In Houston, where I grew up, you turned on the radio and what you got was country and western and gospel. I don't even remember what my first experience with music was. I sort of grew into it. My father sang in a gospel quartet and I used to follow him around, and both my grandparents sang in the Baptist church choir” (Stokes).
Before long she was signing gospel tunes with her father and grandmother and was soon performing solos on Sunday’s at her grandmother’s Baptist church. Though her parents didn’t fully approve of the idea, in 1940 her godmother saw to it that she entered a talent contest at the local Club Eldorado in Houston’s third ward. Performing the only two non-gospel tunes she knew -- “So Long” and “Sunny Side of the Street” with Russell Jacquet’s 17-piece band -- Anderson won the $25 prize.
Duly impressed, Anderson’s parents’ reluctance to have their daughter out in Houston’s nightlife scene caved in and she was allowed to accept the second part of her victory’s reward: a chance to perform every Thursday evening at the Eldorado, where she would be the recipient of cash tips that surpassed the pay earned by her construction-worker father.
Moving to "Quiet" Seattle
From there she began singing with the local high school dance band, but when her grades began slipping, Joseph had had enough. So after a relative in Seattle mentioned to him that the town was relatively quiet and there was plenty of wartime work at the shipyards, he packed up the family in 1944, boarded a northbound train, and settled into the public housing projects sited just up the hill from the old Sicks’ Stadium ballpark in the Rainier Valley neighborhood.
The Andersons discovered that yes, in fact, Seattle did have good jobs available to African American workers -- but, to their surprise, the town’s music scene was far from quiet. It was just under-publicized. And so, within mere months, Anderson was making friends with other young players from Garfield High School and others who often jammed at the Central District YMCA (23rd Avenue and Olive Way). Before long the young singer would discover that, in fact, Seattle had the very active -- if “underground” -- “Jackson Street jazz scene” based in rooms like the Basin Street (S Jackson Street & Maynard Avenue S) and the Washington Social and Educational Club (2302 E Madison Street).
The latter venue was located just upstairs of a butcher shop owned by local bandleader Robert A. “Bumps” Blackwell (1918-1985), and both rooms were popular hangouts for in-the-know musicians. Before long Anderson and a teenaged trumpeter named Quincy Jones (b. 1933) were among those who were recruited to join Blackwell’s Junior Band. Under Blackwell’s leadership, the band-members got a lot of performing experience under their belts, playing gigs around town, at the region’s many military bases, in a tent at a fair in Yakima, and as far away as Victoria and Vancouver, B.C. During a gig at the 411 Club (S Jackson Street and Maynard Avenue S) Anderson’s talent was noticed by Seattle’s top producer and promoter of jazz events, Norm Bobrow, and he booked her to perform at a high profile “Northwest Jazz Series” gig held at the Metropolitan Theater (4th Avenue and University Street) on November 4, 1946.
Debuts and Milestones
Another milestone achieved in Anderson’s early Seattle days was that of making her recording debut. It was in about 1947 that she (and Quincy and the rest of Blackwell’s band) entered Tom and Ellen Ogilvy’s Electro-Mart record shop / recording studio [499 15th Avenue N] and cut an acetate “instant disc” version of “Lover Man,” a classic by her idol, Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990). Although that recording was never issued commercially, just hearing it played back inspired the young singer and her fellow bandmates.
Later in 1947, the 18-year-old Anderson heard that a touring star -- Oakland, California’s R&B pioneer Johnny Otis(1921-2012) -- was in town and seeking a new singer for his band. To her parents' consternation, the 11th grader passed her audition and was asked to hit the road with Otis. Facing the strong pull their daughter felt toward the music biz, they relented and let her quit high school for a shot at the big-time.
After some long hard touring with Otis, the band settled into a gig at Los Angeles’ famed Club Alabam before dissolving. Rather than give up and head straight home to Seattle, Anderson toughed it out and by 1948 she’d married and joined up with a combo headed by the prominent Central Avenue jazz scene bassist, John Willie “Shifty” Henry (1921-1958). It was while with Henry’s band that Anderson cut her first commercially released disc, the proto-R&B tunes, “Good Lovin’ Babe,” and “K.C. Lover” for the fledgling Black & White record company.
Difficulties and Big Breaks
After giving birth to her first child, Anderson and family relocated to Seattle, but the music biz remained a temptation and in 1952 she auditioned and won a spot in the jazz orchestra of the “King of the Vibes,” Lionel Hampton (1908-2002). After more grueling roadwork, Anderson split Hampton’s ensemble and gave it a shot in New York City. The Big Apple, however, proved to be a challenging scene to break into and Anderson found herself taking on menial jobs as a waitress and hotel maid.
But a few breaks began to come her way: in late-1955 she cut the songs “Social Call” and “You’ll Always Be the One I Love” with the notable bebop alto sax-man, George “Gigi” Gryce (1925-1983). When issued on the Nica’s Tempo LP, those tunes brought her increasing notoriety in the jazz world -- enough so that Anderson was invited to tour Scandinavia with the Rolf Ericson combo. And, while in Sweden she cut her first full-length album (with Harry Arnold’s orchestra) which became a hit in Europe in 1956.
In 1958, when Mercury Records stepped up and belatedly issued the LP stateside as Hot Cargo, the dean of America jazz critics, Ralph J. Gleason (1917-1975), began airing it on his hit-making radio show. In addition his nationally distributed San Francisco Chronicle jazz column pushed her, saying: “she is the best new jazz singer in a decade. She has good diction, time, an uncanny ability to phrase well, great warmth in her voice, a true tone and, on top of all that, she swings like mad.”
Best-Kept Jazz Secret in the Land
Such kudos led Time magazine to tout her as “the best new voice in the business ... the voice belongs to Negro Singer Ernestine Anderson, at 29 perhaps the best-kept jazz secret in the land,” and she was soon rewarded with an invitation to perform at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival and on various television shows.
Declared the “New Vocal Star of ‘59” by the down beat magazine’s Critics’ Poll, influential critic Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) went on to note of her second LP, Ernestine Anderson, that: “Miss Anderson certainly does sing in an attractive, naturally strong voice. It's a blessing not to hear the usual contorted gaspings that pass for jazz ‘styles’ among most new female aspirants. She also phrases with intelligence, taste, and a jazz musician's plasticity of line ... a refreshingly unaffected addition to the community of genuine jazz singers.”
Over the next couple years Mercury issued additional albums -- 1960's Fascinating Ernestine and Moanin’, Moanin’, Moanin’ and 1964’s My Kinda Swing -- but as the jazz scene faded during those years when rock ‘n’ roll was ascendant, she lost some career momentum and even resorted to recording some rock-oriented tunes like “A Lover’s Question” and “See See Rider” for Mercury -- and eventually even some 45s like “You’re Not The Guy For Me” and the The New Sound LP for the New York-based soul and R&B label, Sue Records. (Along the way Anderson also recorded for a few other obscure labels: “Limehouse Blues” with the Dick Mark Quintet [Omega Disk Records], an LP with Cal Tjader [Calliope Records], and an LP with the Frank Capp/Nat Pierce Juggernaut [Bellaphon Records].)
Time Out and Back Again
By the mid-1960s an unhappy Anderson relocated to London for two years before returning home in 1966 (and a brief return to LA in 1968 and 1969 -- the year her “He Says He Loves Me” was used in the soundtrack to the Sidney Poitier film, The Lost Man), where she shunned the music biz for nearly a decade. Around 1974 she was encouraged by Seattle Post-Intelligencer music critic Maggie Hawthorne to reenter the scene with a casual gig jamming at Red Kelly’s jazz club just south of Olympia, Washington, in Tumwater. The casual vibe at Kelly’s was the perfect antidote to the high-pressure music world she’d left behind and Anderson became reenergized.
In 1975 she accepted a booking in Vancouver B.C., where she crossed paths once again with an old friend from the LA scene, the star jazz bassist Ray Brown (1926-2002). Pleased to see her back in action, Brown got her booked at the 1976 Concord Jazz Festival -- a gig that got her a new recording contract with the up-&-coming jazz label, Concord Records.
Hits and Kudos
The next 17 years sealed Anderson’s reputation as a top-tier jazz and blues singer. She performed headlining shows far and wide and recorded almost 20 albums for Concord, two of which -- 1981’s Never Make Your Move Too Soon and 1983’s Big City -- earned GRAMMY Best Jazz Vocal Performance nominations. In the years that followed Anderson toured widely -- a triumphant series of dates in Japan led to the release of a four-disc live set in 1988 -- and that same year she made her debut at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. In addition, Anderson performed at the Hollywood Bowl, at the Women In Jazz event at the Kennedy Center in 1999, at Monterey (1959, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1990, 2007), and at numerous other jazz festivals from New Orleans to Brazil, Berlin, Austria, and all around the globe.
After leaving Concord Records in 1993, Anderson signed on with her old Seattle jazz scene pal, Quincy Jones, and his happening new label, Qwest, which issued two albums -- 1993’s Now and Then, and 1996’s Blues, Dues & Love News -- that also both received GRAMMY nominations. By the late 1990s she was signed to the Koch International label which issued her Isn’t It Romantic album, in 2003 her High Note label CD, Love Makes the Changes was a breakout hit, and her 2004 JVC CD, Hello Like Before, brought further accolades.
Honey at Dusk
Critics and fellow musicians can be forgiven for utilizing culinary metaphors to describe Anderson’s tasty vocal tones that can span satiny-to-biting as required to best convey any particular song. Examples of these accolades range from “butter caramel laced with cognac” (Hawthorn), to “smooth as buttered rum” (Loudon), to “honey at dusk” (Quincy Jones).
In 1999 Anderson was selected as one of 75 women for inclusion in the I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America book by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, Brian Lanker. In addition, Anderson has been profiled on NPR, has received numerous honorary awards, and for a couple years she even fronted her own popular namesake jazz club, Ernestine’s (313 Occidental Avenue S), in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Thrilling Hometown Crowds
Thrice married, this mother of three (including a Seattle-based musician son, Michael) grandmother to more than a dozen, and great-grandmother to still a few more, Anderson lived a full and rewarding life in a community that adored her. On the evening of November 7, 1998, Seattle celebrated Ernestine Anderson’s “70th Birthday Bash” with an excellent concert held at the historic Paramount Theater -- an opulent hall whose owner announced that night that the VIP reception area would henceforth be named in her honor.
Thus from humble beginnings singing jazz and blues in some of Seattle's sketchiest rooms a half-century ago, Ernestine Anderson was, in her later years, more likely to be seen and heard thrilling large hometown crowds with shows at Seattle's finest venues including the Opera House (with the Seattle Symphony), Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, the Experience Music Project (EMP), and the fabulous Benaroya Hall.
Ernestine Anderson died in Seattle at the age of 87 in March 2016.