This November 11th would have been the 93rd birthday of Seattle’s beloved jazz vocalist Ernestine Anderson. In the time since her passing, streets have been renamed in her honor, housing complexes carry her name, and Earshot Jazz has honored her life’s work. As important as it is to celebrate up and coming artists, it is equally important to remember those upon whose shoulders we all stand. Ernestine Anderson was a giant and a beloved member of Seattle’s community. She honored us with her international acclaim and to keep her memory alive, we want to remind our readers of who she was.
Born November 11, 1928, in Houston, Texas, international jazz great Ernestine Anderson passed away March 10, 2016, in Seattle, where she had resided since the age of 16.
Anderson’s career began in the early 1940s, though she had begun to sing along with Bessie Smith records at age 3. Equally gifted at singing upbeat, spirited blues, big band/swing, and jazzy pop, her early career led her to sing alongside Russell Jacquet, Eddie Heywood, Shifty Henry, and Johnny Otis. By the ’50s, Anderson had become a prominent jazz stylist performing with Lionel Hampton on the New York Club scene. Ernestine performed at the first of many subsequent Monterey Jazz Festivals. Prior to recording her breakout hit album Hot Cargo in 1956, Anderson had also performed with a Seattle contemporary and fellow Garfield High School graduate, Quincy Jones. Anderson and Jones would eventually reunite when in 1994, his Quest Records label produced her timeless album, Now and Then, followed by Blues, Dues, & Love News, which featured songs penned by Anderson. Jones described Anderson’s voice as, “honey at dusk.”
Anderson first recorded in 1955 with bandleader Gigi Gryce. Recording two albums by 1959, Ernestine Anderson won the New Star Award from Downbeat critics. In 1969, Anderson’s He Says He Loves Me, recorded for the soundtrack of the Sidney Poitier film “The Lost Man,” garnered great international attention making her a highly in-demand singer, and after signing to Concord Records she released Hello Like Before. By the mid-1980s Anderson was cutting sessions with her own quartet and her 1981 album Never Make Your Move Too Soon garnered her first Grammy Nomination. Anderson would be nominated for a total of 4 Grammys, in the categories of Best Jazz Vocalist and Best Jazz Female Vocalist.
A significant contributor to jazz history, Anderson’s six-plus decades' career resulted in the release of more than 30 albums. In 1958, Time Magazine featured her stating, “The voice belongs to Negro Singer Ernestine Anderson, at 29 perhaps the best-kept jazz secret in the land.” But Anderson was no secret to jazz lovers and admirers of accomplished African Americans around the world. In 1999, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker selected Ernestine as one of only 75 women to be featured in his book, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, alongside Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Sarah Vaughn, Oprah Winfrey, and others.
“Ernestine was the mother of Seattle’s soul music,” said (then) Congressman Jim McDermott. “Mississippi had BB King and Seattle had Ernestine Anderson. Ernestine’s legacy remains unmatched in Seattle’s music scene.”
Ernestine Anderson created many memorable moments around the world, and at home in Seattle. She performed a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at Carnegie Hall, performed with Billy Taylor at the Kennedy Center, and added her voice to The White House's first inauguration event for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Anderson routinely accepted invitations to perform at benefits for local charities and causes. Her 1998 70th Birthday Bash at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre was a benefit for Children’s Hospital and the Rise n’ Shine Foundation. At this event, Ernestine showcased the music of her beloved high school alma mater, performing with the Garfield Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seattle’s Marcus Tsutakawa.
The contributions to our nation’s musical history from Seattle artists are well known and not far from memory. We lift up one of the greats, a Black woman, who always gave more than she was given. We remember Ernestine Anderson, with love.