Working on a book about music in Harlem, specifically songs that referenced the community, I had concluded that “Harlem Nocturne” would be on the list. What I didn’t know was that one of the most popular versions of the standard was recorded by Ernestine Anderson. “Deep music fills the night / In the heart of Harlem. And though the stars are bright / the darkness haunts me,” Anderson sang on the recording released in 1960.
Against a backdrop of lush strings, Anderson’s vocals have an easy rhythm with bluesy articulation that immediately evokes a dark Harlem night scene. By this time she was well advanced in her adventurous career and was returning to America after a stay in Europe.
But the real beginning for her was in Houston, Texas, where she was born on November 11, 1928, with her twin sister, Josephine. His musical DNA is derived from his father who often sang bass in a gospel quartet. At home, blues records were constantly on the turntable, where she heard such notables as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and others. And when the record player wasn’t spinning, the radio was tuned to an assortment of music, including country and western recordings, gospel, and even the occasional pop.
“They had great bands going through Houston like Jimmie Lunceford, Billy Eckstine, Erskine Hawkins and Count Basie,” she told a reporter. These sounds had a huge impact on her and she started singing all over the house. Her godmother entered her into a local competition and “I only knew two songs”, she recalls, one of them was “On the Sunny Side of the Street”. When asked what key she wanted to sing it in, she had no idea and said “C”, which was wrong, but she did a fabulous job of improvising, so much so that at the end of his performance, the pianist told him “you are a jazz singer.
At that time, she was living in Seattle and attending Garfield High School. She was still a teenager when bandleader “Bumps” Blackwell hired her to sing in his junior band. Quincy Jones and Ray Charles would be among the group’s alumni. Two years later she was on the road with the Johnny Otis band and in 1952 she was touring with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra, eventually settling in New York. His recording career was launched with an appearance on Gigi Gryce’s 1955 album “Nica’s Tempo” on the Savoy label. In 1958, his first album under his name was called “Hot Cargo”, on the Mercury Records label.
His fledgling career took a considerable hit when famed jazz critic Ralph Gleason wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that “she’s the best new singer in a decade. She has good diction, time and an amazing ability to express well, a great warmth in her voice, a true tone and, on top of that, she swings like crazy. In 1959, she received the “New Star” award from Downbeat magazine. This only accentuated what had been written about her a year earlier in Time magazine, which called her the “country’s best-kept secret.” And then came the inevitable comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, whom she most resembled in tone and phrasing.
In Brian Lanker’s book about black women who changed the world, “I Dream A World”, Anderson is profiled and she commented on how she developed as a singer. “I learned to listen to other singers and take certain things away from them while still maintaining my own identity,” she said. “Everyone is influenced by someone or something. If there is an original, who is the original?
For many jazz musicians, including singers, there was a slog in the 60s as rhythm & blues, funk, and rock and roll gained ascendancy. But his career enjoyed a revival in the 70s after a sensational appearance at the Concord Jazz Festival in 1976. What followed was a succession of reasonably successful albums, concert appearances and general recognition as a popular jazz singer and performer. In 1983, she earned a Grammy nomination for “Big City.” By the late 80s she was back on tour, including a big stint in Japan. On her return came an invitation to sing at Carnegie Hall, then there was the Hollywood Bowl, then the Kennedy Center, and on and on.
A decade later, she left Concord Records and signed with Qwest, reconnecting her with her soul mate and Seattle. There were other recording dates and none were as plentiful and rewarding as his 2004 JVC CD “Hello Like Before”, Bill Withers’ composition. Years before, in her search for peace and quiet, she became a follower of Nichiren Buddhism.
On March 10, 2016, she passed away peacefully in Shoreline, Washington, at age 87, surrounded by family and friends.