Ernestine Anderson, a versatile jazz singer who recorded her most acclaimed albums after a self-imposed hiatus, died on Thursday at her home in Seattle. She was 87.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Shelley Young.
Ms. Anderson, who began singing professionally in her teens and was still performing into her 80s, was well known to jazz aficionados and praised by critics for her approach, which combined sophisticated jazz phrasing with an earthy blues sensibility. She was often compared to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, and her records were a staple of jazz radio playlists. Reviewing her for The New York Times in 2008, Ben Ratliff praised her for her “reserved, curvaceous phrasing,” which he said “slows down time.”
But she never achieved significant mainstream success. For most of her career she remained what Time magazine called her in 1958: “perhaps the best-kept jazz secret in the land.”
Her repertoire was heavy on jazz standards like Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin.’ ” Her signature song, and a perennial showstopper at her live performances, was “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” a playful blues tune written by Stix Hooper of the Crusaders and Will Jennings.
Ms. Anderson performed at Carnegie Hall, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and jazz festivals all over the world. She released more than 20 albums and was nominated for four Grammy Awards, although she never won.
Ernestine Irene Anderson was born in Houston on Nov. 11, 1928. As a child she watched her father perform in a gospel quartet, sang with her grandmother in church and taught herself to play piano by ear.
In the mid-1940s her family moved to Seattle, where she attended Garfield High School with Quincy Jones and began performing with him in the Bumps Blackwell Junior Band. Decades later, he would sign her to his Qwest label; two of her Qwest albums, “Now and Then” and “Blues, Dues and Love News,” received Grammynominations.
Ms. Anderson emulated Sarah Vaughan early in her career, she said, but she became so determined to develop her own style that she stopped listening to other singers.
She toured with Johnny Otis’s band when she was 18 and with Lionel Hampton in the early 1950s. Her first album, “Hot Cargo,” was recorded in Sweden with the trumpeter Rolf Ericson and released in the United States in 1958.
When jazz’s popularity declined in the United States in the mid-1960s, Ms. Anderson struggled to find work and moved to London. When she returned a few years later, she decided to quit singing altogether.
She returned to the stage after moving back to Seattle in the mid-1970s, then spent more than a decade recording for the Concord Jazz label.
Ms. Anderson’s twin sister, Josephine, died in 2000. In addition to her daughter Shelley she is survived by another daughter, Yvonne Anderson-Stover; a son, Michael Young; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.