Jazz Profiles from NPR
Ernestine Anderson
Produced by Joan Merrill

Ernestine Anderson  

From tender and soulful to hard-edged and gritty, Ernestine Anderson is one of the most versatile jazz vocalists to emerge from the big band era. During the course of her 50-year career, Anderson has captivated audiences in America and abroad with her tantalizing voice and charming stage presence.

On November 11, 1928, Ernestine was born, singing the blues. At age three, she could sing along with the raw tunes of the legendary Bessie Smith -- she soon moved on to the more refined environs of her local church, singing solos in its gospel choir. After winning a regional talent competition at the age of 12, the precocious singer landed a gig with trumpeter Russell Jacquet's big band.

Listen to Ernestine reflect on the influence of music in her childhood

Johnny Otis  

As Ernestine began performing professionally on a regular basis, her schoolwork suffered. To get his daughter back on track, Ernestine's father moved the family from Houston to Seattle. But Ernestine's talent proved too big to control, and with her family's blessings, she left home at 18 to tour with a big band led by Johnny Otis (left).

Listen to bandleader Johnny Otis describe the young new singer

Two years later, Ernestine returned home, married and had children, but when an opportunity knocked to join the renowned Lionel Hampton Orchestra, her parents offered to care for the kids temporarily. Ernestine hit the road again.

Despite critical acclaim and professional success, Ernestine surprisingly lacked confidence in her ability as a vocalist. It wasn't until she toured Sweden and became a sensation there that she really came into her own, "reaching another level of her being." She remained in Sweden to record her first solo album.

Listen to Ernestine recall how Sweden opened up a whole new world for her


Upon returning to the States, Ernestine gave the album to jazz critic Ralph Gleason. So impressed by Ernestine's sound, Gleason secured a record deal for her with Mercury Records. Hot Cargo was released in 1958 to rave reviews and Downbeat magazine named Ernestine Anderson "Best New Vocal Star."

Listen to critic Ralph Gleason's description of Ernestine's artistry

She can sing the blues, and she can sing a ballad. She can swing you out of the country!

-- Etta James  

After her contract with Mercury ended, her ensuing legal dispute with the label kept her from recording for five years. During that period, she had trouble getting gigs, enduring the worst slump of her career. Making matters worse, she found herself emotionally drained by the pressures of instant fame.

Ernestine toured Europe in an attempt to revive her career, returning to the States in the late 1960s to find her syle of music out of fashion. During this low period, Ernestine decided to quit singing and return to the comfort of her family, finding solace in the tenets of Buddhism.

Listen to Ernestine reflect on her low period

As it happened, this respite worked wonders for Ernestine. When Concord Records came calling with an unexpected record deal, she embraced the chance to sing again and faced her subsequent success with unfettered enthusiasm.

Gene Harris  

Over the next 15 years, Ernestine released 14 albums, performed in festivals nationwide with pianists Gene Harris (left) and George Shearing, received several Grammy nominations, and opened her own jazz club.

Listen to pianist Gene Harris describe an incident at a Concord Jazz Festival

Today, Ernestine sings a life-affirming blues with genuine feeling. As the vocalist's long-time friend and accompanist, Norman Simmons, puts it, Ernestine's profound soul makes her a natural at the blues and whenever she croons -- "somewhere in that song she's gonna find some way to bend that thing."


View the Ernestine Anderson show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org


More InfoBrowse the Official Ernestine Anderson Web site