Anderson, Ernestine (Contemporary Musicians)
In a career spanning more than five decades, jazz singer Ernestine Anderson has recorded over 30 albums. Known for her sultry voice and rich sound, Anderson has received four Grammy Award nominations. She has sung at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, as well as at jazz festivals all over the world. According to Marius Nordal in the Seattle Times, "Some critics feel that Anderson has the widest emotional range of any jazz singer in the world. She is one of those rare talents who can transform any standard tune into a fiery extension of the blues and then, in a flash, sing a beautiful ballad with all of the demure innocence of a church deacon singing a devotional song."
Born on November 11, 1928, in Houston, Texas, Anderson began showing an interest in singing from an early age. She sang her first professional gig when she was 12, fronting for Russell Jacquet's 17-piece band in the Eldorado Ballroom in Houston. "After I got over the nervousness, it was quite a thrill," she told Keith Raether in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1944 her parents moved the family to Seattle, partly to remove her from what they considered to be the negative influence of the jazz scene in Houston; her father took a defense job working in the Seattle shipyards. However, Seattle also had a thriving jazz community, and in that city's clubs on Jackson Street, Anderson and other singers such as Ray Charles and Quincy Jones got their start.
In 1947, still a teenager, Anderson began singing with Johnny Otis and his band. Quincy Jones told Paul de Barrosinthe Seattle Times, "She was out with Johnny Otis and those bands before anybody. Everyone was in awe of anybody that had gone on the road with a professional band." After singing with Otis, Anderson got her first big break in 1952, when she auditioned to sing with Lionel Hampton's orchestra. She made the cut, and joined several other artists for a lengthy tour, playing at concert halls, clubs, and president Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration. During the tour she traveled to Sweden, where she was pleasantly surprised to find a society where prejudice was rare. According to de Barros, Anderson remarked that Sweden "was the first place she felt really free." In this liberating atmosphere she recorded the album Hot Cargo with band leader Rolf Ericson. In 1958 the album was picked up in the United States by Mercury Records, and soon became a huge hit. Anderson was featured on the cover of Time magazine as "the best new voice in the business," according to Roberta Penn in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and received rave reviews. Penn noted that Anderson had been compared to famous vocalists Ella Fitzgerald, June Cristy, and Sarah Vaughan.
According to de Barros, Anderson's style at this time was "bright, elegant, [and] optimistic," and was influenced by "Sarah Vaughan's precision and the drive of big-band swing." However, at the time, rock 'n' roll was taking over the American scene, and record labels began pressuring singers, including Anderson, to sing pop. Anderson wasn't interested in singing in this style, so in the 1960s she moved to England for a time and found that, as other artists had told her, jazz had a more thriving life in Europe than in the United States, despite its American origins. However, she still fell into a depression over her career, wondering what to do next.
By 1968, burned out and tired, she decided she had done enough in the music business, and moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. She told Penn, "I was suffering from depression so bad that I had become a recluse, living in L.A. and scared to death. Several people told me about [Buddhist] chanting, so I went to a meeting and when I left I realized I no longer had that heavy anxiety."
Anderson began attending the Nihiren Shoshu Community Center, to chant and meditate. Buddhism helped her regain joy in living. According to Nordal in the Seattle Times she said, "I left L.A. with a thirst for living. I found a great joy in being alive." She told Raether, "I found out what I wanted to do," adding, "I don't have any bones to pick about my life or my career. Buddhism taught me something very simple, something most people never come to terms with. You don't need negative things in your life. They're a waste of precious time." She told Penn that Buddhism had also helped her find the strength to take care of her twin sister Pheeney (short for Josephine), who is developmentally disabled and needs a great deal of care. She also said, "I think most people in the arts are basically shy and that's a way to express themselves. I'm happy when I'm on stage. But it is because I am a Buddhist that I'm able to take care of my sister and have a career." In 1999 Anderson told Raether, "I'm blessed with the best of both worlds now. I learned that what an artist needs in order to be right in life is to be serious about his art."
Anderson returned to Seattle in 1973 and went back to her musical career in 1976. Her style had changed somewhat over the years; de Barros wrote that her tone was darker, and "a certain worldly wisdom comes through." Anderson worked with Quincy Jones, Gene Harris, Lionel Hampton, and bassist Ray Brown. Brown's connections with Concord Records led to a recording deal with that label for Anderson, who released several successful recordings and received four Grammy Award nominations.
Anderson told a Seattle Times reporter about her failure to win a Grammy despite all her nominations, "That's the way it goes. I don't dwell on it. At the time, when you're sitting there in the audience and your heart is in your mouth, and you want to lose your lunch and you break out in a cold sweat just before they announce the winner, it's like somebody sticks a pin in your balloon. But I think it's quite an accomplishment to be nominated four times and just to be in the running with all these younger singers."
In 1998 Anderson celebrated her 70th birthday with a huge party and performance that benefited two of her favorite charities, the Seattle Children's Hospital and the Rise n' Shine Foundation, which provides care for children with diseases related to AIDS. Anderson told a writer for the Seattle Times, "It's all about the children, these days. They need so much more than we did, when we were growing up."
In 2002 Anderson received a Bumbershoot Festival Golden Umbrella Award. The award honors artists from the Northwestern United States "who have significantly contributed to the cultural landscape of our region." Anderson was featured in the Smithsonian Institution CD anthology The Jazz Singers, and she was one of 75 women honored in the book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, by Brian Lanker.
In 2003 Anderson's CD Love Makes the Changes reached the number five position on the jazz charts. She told Diane Wright in the Seattle Times that perhaps her age and experience helped her in her singing: "As a singer, you have to tell the story from your life experience. That's what the lyrics mean to you." She also said that musicians had to continue working in order to fuel their abilities: "Even now, you have to work at it, continue using it. Like anything, like athletes, [musicians] have to do a lot of things to arrive at being good. They can't just rely on talent alone. They have to work at it."
Hot Cargo, Mercury, 1958.
Ernestine Anderson: The Toast of the Nation's Critics, Mercury, 1958.
The New Sound of Ernestine Anderson, Sue, 1960.
Hello Like Before, Concord, 1977.
Live from Concord to London, Concord, 1978.
Sunshine, Concord, 1980.
Big City, Concord, 1983.
When the Sun Goes Down, Concord, 1985.
Live at the Alley Cat with the Frank Capp/Nat Pierce Juggernaut, Bellaphon, 1987.
Be Mine Tonight, Concord, 1987.
Never Make Your Move Too Soon, Concord, 1981.
A Perfect Match, Concord, 1988.
Live at the 1990 Concord Jazz Festival Third Set, Concord, 1990.
Boogie Down with the Clayton Hamilton Orchestra, Concord, 1991.
Great Moments with Ernestine Anderson, Concord, 1993.
Now and Then, Qwest, 1994.
Blues, Dues and Love News, Qwest, 1997.
Isn't It Romantic, 1998.
I Love Being Here With You, Concord, 2002.
Love Makes the Changes, High Note, 2003.
Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1989.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 1996, p. 8; November 14, 1997, p. 8; January 30, 1997, p. C5; November 7, 1998, p. C1; May 14, 1999, p. 7.
Seattle Times, November 1, 1998, p. M1; December 22, 2000, p. G25; August 30, 2002, p. H6; December 26, 2003, p. H6; May 26, 2004, p. H27.