December 08, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Local jazz musician Ernie Hatfield dies at 88
By Jason Margolis
He sang backup with Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s. He shared the stage with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan.
Ernest John "Ernie" Hatfield had been a staple in the Harlem jazz scene of the 1930s and '40s, rubbing shoulders and drinking cocktails with jazz legends and Harlem underworld figures such as "Detroit Red," who later changed his name to Malcolm X.
Born July 5, 1914, in Chester, Pa., Mr. Hatfield died of heart failure Nov. 21 at Harborview Medical Center. He was 88.
Mr. Hatfield's music career was put on hold for World War II when he was assigned to Tuskegee, Ala., as a gunner in the all-black military unit. His musical talent was soon recognized and he was recruited to organize USO tours and entertain the troops.
When his voice started to fade after the war, Mr. Hatfield taught himself to play piano and continued to earn a living performing jazz.
He came to Seattle on tour in 1951. A black man married to a white woman, he decided to raise his family in the Northwest because of the more tolerant racial climate, said his younger son, Bryan Hatfield.
Mr. Hatfield worked as a janitor by day and jazz musician by night. Over the years, he elevated his day job to surplus evaluator for the state of Washington and began to establish himself as a Seattle jazz legend.
"He worked five days a week and played six nights a week on almost no sleep to carry the load of the family," said Bryan Hatfield.
His older son, Ernie Hatfield Jr., said the demanding work schedule meant his father had to find creative ways to spend time with his family.
"I was a little kid and my dad would wake me up to take me to a jam session," Ernie Jr. said, describing the 2 a.m. get-togethers with Seattle musicians. "It was great."
The Hatfield home was always filled with music, but Mr. Hatfield wanted a stable life for his children. "He actually always warned me not to go into music. He emphasized to get an education," said Ernie Jr., who initially ignored his father's advice and began a career as a blues keyboardist; Mr. Hatfield's son Bryan became a rap and hip-hop producer.
"Still, I always think he was proud of what we did," said Ernie Jr.
Mr. Hatfield was a regular pianist at the Seattle Tennis Club, Seattle Yacht Club and at parties for Seattle's elite, playing with the Inner City Jazz Quartet.
"Ernie was the best. He played with such grace and style in a Count Basie kinda way, with his own humorous interpretation," said bassist Terry D. Morgan, who played with Mr. Hatfield for nearly 20 years in Seattle. "If anybody requested a song, he could play it because he knew it in his head."
In fact, Mr. Hatfield didn't learn to read music until his older son taught him in the early 1970s, but he continued playing without sheet music.
Mr. Hatfield often talked about his friendship with Billie Holiday, who could drink herself into a stupor and then perform flawlessly, said Peter Madsen, drummer for the Inner City Jazz Quartet, recounting Mr. Hatfield's tales.
Mr. Hatfield developed a long friendship with Sarah Vaughan, and it was Mr. Hatfield's gentle shove that launched Vaughan's storied singing career.
"They called her name to come on stage and she froze," said Bryan Hatfield, describing an amateur night in the 1940s at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Mr. Hatfield pushed her on stage.
In addition to sons Ernie Jr., of Salida, Colo., and Bryan, of Seattle, Mr. Hatfield is survived by his wife of 53 years, Mary Anne Hatfield, of Seattle; daughter Ernestine Smith, of Chester, Pa.; and several grandchildren. Memorial services were held Dec. 3 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Seattle. A memorial Web site has been set up for friends and family to share comments online: www.erniehatfield.com.
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company