The Music World
Long before grunge made its mark, the rhythm of Seattle was defined by a very different kind of sound. Rooted in the 1920’s speakeasy scene and nurtured by the 1940’s wartime boom, Jazz found fertile ground and sprang up like a dandelion on the streets of Seattle. When Quincy Jones befriended the honey-voiced Ernestine Anderson at Garfield High School, the music world had no idea what was coming its way.
Born in Houston, Ernestine Anderson began singing in church at 3 and, by 13, was a regular performer at Houston’s Eldorado Ballroom. Her father, worried about the wild temptations of the jazz life and chasing wartime work, packed up the family and moved them to Seattle. A family friend has assured him that Seattle was a sleepy town with no nightlife. That person was very, very wrong.
Gasoline in her Pockets
Musically speaking, Jackson Street was on fire, and Ernestine had gasoline in her pockets. It wasn’t long before she was singing with Bumps Blackwell Junior Band alongside Quincy Jones on sax, Buddy Catlett, and other rising stars. While still in high school and relatively new in town, she was headlining her own show at the 411 Club for folks who’d stayed out so late they needed breakfast with their blues. She told her father she’d be on the road touring as soon as she was 18 and, sure enough, she left school and hit the road with Johnny Otis’ band, cruising towards Los Angeles. There, she recorded her first single and married her first husband. The future seemed bright indeed.
From LA it was back to Seattle and then back on the road with Lionel Hampton, this time headed east and then, eventually, off to tour Europe where she discovered a world without the same prejudice and segregation back home. She discovered real freedom and budding stardom in the 50’s but, as the jazz scene fell away before a growing rock revolution, Ernestine found gigs growing few and far between. Depressed, she retired from music and returned to Seattle once more. For years, she lived in the shadow of talent denied, working as a hotel maid and at a telephone answering service. Music had abandoned her.
At least, that’s what she thought. Once jazz has hold of you, it never really lets go. After a few years of anonymity, Seattle Jazz critic Maggie Hawthorn pushed Ernestine to perform again; the world needed her voice, like “honey at dusk,” according to Quincy Jones. Bassist Ray Brown heard her perform, became her manager, and convinced Concord Records to sign her. Her performance at the Concord Jazz Festival was a revelation. The “best-kept jazz secret in the land” (Time Magazine) was a secret no more. Her bluesy sound found the right audience at the right time. She stepped into the spotlight and held it like a torch for another twenty years.
Ernestine is a lesson in chasing dreams, but also having the patience to let them chase you right back. Her path to stardom was no straight line, but filled with highs, lows and unexpected swings. There was enough joy to balance the pain, and a whole lot of improvisation across a long life as compelling and complicated as Jazz itself. Her legacy lives on in her music, but also in Ernestine Anderson Place, a Seattle apartment complex serving previously homeless and low-income seniors in need of a helping hand.