Ernestine and I were both old-timers who enjoyed a lot of the same things. We were both originally from the South and loved the blues and R&B, and we both remained true to those elements. But she could sing anything. She liked to stay current with music, and she also had affection for the standards and a dedication to swing. She was always swinging. If you take all of those ingredients—the blues, R&B, swing—and put them together in the pot, you’ve got quite the little gumbo going on!
I first heard Ernestine on recordings way back, and I met her through Etta Jones, whom I was working with. She and Etta were great friends. I didn’t work with Ernestine til much later on. She called me to guest on a few of her shows. The first time was at Jazz Alley, up in Seattle, where she lived. Then she had different projects where she could use a saxophone, so I worked those gigs with her. I really enjoyed it. We really had a wonderful time together because we had that closeness to the blues and R&B. She really had fun with music.
She was easy to work with. It was really very simple: She left you to your own devices, but you had to know where to go and what to play when, especially the rhythm section; she always used a good rhythm section. You knew that you had to deliver once she gave you that space. When she did those little things that she did with her voice, you had to know exactly what to do—and what not to do! One thing about an instrumentalist is you’ve got to enjoy working with the singer. I enjoy singers, and Ernestine was tops. If you felt the same way she did about the music, you could really enhance what she was doing.
A lot of people said that we sounded like we had a special bond, and we did, but I think that’s because we didn’t get to [work together] til later on, after we already knew each other for a long time. We did this one album at Dizzy’s [2011’s Nightlife: Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola], and what I remember most about that gig is that all I did up there was have a good time and let it all hang out. It’s rare to get a chance to do that and just throw it all out there. When we hit the bandstand all hell broke loose. It was always a lot of fun with Ernestine.
One thing about her was she really liked food. I used to cook for her sometimes, meaning that the one thing I cook—catfish—she liked. Sometimes she and Etta would get together and put me in the kitchen and I’d get to work while they sat and talked. She was very interested in everything. People who are entertainers have thoughts on a lot of subjects; people don’t get a chance to really hear the sincerity and concern for other people that entertainers have. She was really concerned with the human condition. But she could also be hilarious.
Ernestine was a wonderful person. She helped and mentored a lot of singers. People came to her for advice. She was also very family-oriented. And she really cared about Seattle, and Seattle in turn loved her. And I loved her.