Working on a book about music in Harlem, particularly 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/Deep in the heart of Harlem. And though the stars are bright/the darkness is haunting me,” Anderson sang on the recording released in 1960.
Against a lush background of strings, Anderson’s voice has an easy lilt with a bluesy articulation that immediately evokes a shadowy night scene in Harlem. At this time she was well along in her adventurous career and returning to America after a sojourn in Europe.
But the real beginning for her was in Houston, Texas where she was born on Nov. 11, 1928, along with her twin sister, Josephine. Her musical DNA was derived from her father who often sang bass in a gospel quartet. In their 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, gospel and even occasional pop recordings.
“They had big bands coming through Houston like Jimmie Lunceford, Billy Eckstine, Erskine Hawkins, and Count Basie,” she told a reporter. These sounds had a tremendous impact on her and she began to sing around the house. Her godmother entered her in a local contest and “I only knew two songs,” she recalled, 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 her performance the pianist told her “you are a jazz singer.”
By this 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 alumni of the band. Two years later she was on the road with the Johnny Otis band and in 1952 she went on tour with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra, eventually settling in New York City. Her recording career was launched with an appearance on Gigi Gryce’s 1955 album “Nica’s Tempo” on the Savoy label. In 1958, her debut album under her name was called “Hot Cargo,” on the Mercury Records label.
Her burgeoning career got a considerable bump when noted jazz critic Ralph Gleason wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that “she is the best new singer in a decade. She has good diction, time, and an uncanny ability to phrase well, great warmth in her voice, a true tone and, on top of that, she swings like mad.” In 1959, she was awarded “New Star” in Downbeat magazine. This merely accentuated what had been written about her a year before in Time magazine, who deemed her the “best kept secret in the land.” And then came the inevitable comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, whom she most closely resembled in tone and phrasing.
In Brian Lanker’s book on Black women who changed the world, “I Dream A World,” Anderson is among those profiled and she commented on how she developed as a singer. “I learned how to listen to other singers and take from them certain things and still have my own identity,” she said. “Everybody is influenced by somebody, or something. If there’s an original, who is the original?”
For many jazz musicians, including the singers, there was a slog in the ’60s as rhythm & blues, funk, and rock and roll gained ascendance. But her career experienced a revival in the ’70s after a sensational appearance at the 1976 Concord Jazz Festival. There followed 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 tours, including a great stint in Japan. On her return came an invitation to sing at Carnegie Hall, and then there was the Hollywood Bowl, and then the Kennedy Center, and then and then.
A decade later she left Concord Records and signed with Qwest, putting her back in touch with her soulmate and Seattle. There were other recording dates and none as bountiful and rewarding as her 2004 JVC CD “Hello Like Before,” the Bill Withers composition. Years before in her search for peace and tranquility she became a follower of Nichiren Buddhism.
On March 10, 2016, she died peacefully in Shoreline, Washington, at 87, surrounded by her family and friends.