By Rick Kogan,
A little Armenian restaurant off Michigan Avenue is jazz singer Erin McDougald’s “perfect listening room.”
Erin McDougald has a high-spirited laugh, serious artistic intentions and deeply soulful jazz singing voice and she uses them all to fill any room she occupies, and on Tuesday nights that room happens to be a most unusual, unexpected and altogether enchanting one, an Armenian restaurant called Sayat Nova.
Even many of those who have been partaking of this place since it opened in 1969 at 157 E. Ohio St. do not know — Haven’t cared? Never asked? — that it is named for an Armenian poet and musician who lived (and died) in the 18th century, his works now largely forgotten.
Not so what comes from McDougald, which are the timeless tunes of such people as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and all of those talented others who have filled the pages of the so-called and seemingly everlasting American Songbook.
“This is the music I love,” she says. “It does not allow me to fall into a rut. It is so rich, of such depth and texture that it always enables me to stretch outside my comfort zone.”
McDougald (www.flappergirlsings.com) has been at this for some time and you may have seen her in such rooms as the Green Mill, Reggie’s, Underground Wonder Bar, Pete Miller’s, Jazz Showcase and the many other places that dot the local nightclub landscape. She has recorded fine CDs, among them “Blue Prelude” and “The Auburn Collection.” She has appeared on TV and been interviewed on radio, where she once addressed the precarious state of the contemporary jazz singer by saying, “My parents, who live in Florida now, are biting their nails worrying about my career, asking me why I just don’t go on ‘American Idol’ and become famous.”
Born in Ohio, she was started down this jazz road as a child growing up in Delaware, her first guide being her grandfather. “He lived in our house from the time I was about 10,” she says. “And he wanted me to learn the standards so I could sing to him. He listened to an oldies station and I can clearly remember him lighting up when I sang, even as he began to get older and fade away.”
She studied dance and took voice lessons for many youthful years and after high school pursued a musical theater degree at the University of Cincinnati. Transferring to Columbia College here, she earned a degree in music performance, mentored by such grand talents/teachers as composer William Russo and singer Bobbi Wilson. She started visiting clubs, she started singing in clubs and she has been here ever since.
“Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day … There are just so many singers who I love,” she says. “Having a good voice is just part of what makes a good singer. There is always a challenge. The timing, the rhythms. The challenge is always there and I think I am always evolving. Jazz allows for that in its complexity. It is my life.”
There have been some memorable highlights: Bob Dylan saw her two nights in a row when she sang at the Pump Room, bought one of her CDs (asking for her autograph) and bought for her a red wine; John Malkovich bought a bunch of her CDs and gave them as gifts to some of his Steppenwolf pals; and she has performed with so many greats, including Ira Sullivan, Paul Wertico and Howard Levy.
An ebullient personality, she will tell you: “I love writing and singing my own tunes and I enjoy greatly taking non-jazz compositions and creating a jazz treatment for them. The words or melody alone will not necessarily define the genre, the expression of those things is the key ingredient.”
And so, a recent Tuesday night at Sayat Nova and the owner of the restaurant and the building in which it sits is saying that for a decade on Saturday nights the room used to feature music spun by international deejays and that “it attracted a crowd of its own.”
“But you can’t get this anyplace else,” says Roupen Demirdjian, and there is no argument, whether he is talking about the music or the restaurant or the combination of both. He is a genial and energetic owner/host, as was his father, Arsen, who died in 2013. Roupen jumps up from his stool the moment someone pushes through the restaurant’s doors, smiling in greeting friends and strangers. That is how he met McDougald when she strolled in quite by accident one afternoon more than a year ago.
“Tuesdays have been special ever since,” he says.
People arrive in a steady stream this night, many of them having made this room and its food and drinks and music a part of their weekly diet. Some perch on the 10 stools that front the small bar. They sip drinks. Others are spread out at tables or tucked into the seven intimate booths that line a couple of the walls. They eat, they talk but mostly they listen.
“This really is what I consider a perfect listening room,” says McDougald.
She and the other members of her regular quartet (Don Stille on keyboard, Aaron Zachary on bass and Keith Brooks on drums, often joined by special guests — on this night it is trombonist Andy Baker) are at the front of the room, separated from the sidewalks by windows. They play roughly from 6 to 9:30 p.m. but have been known to go deeper into the night. There is no cover charge (www.sayatnovachicago.com) and the food is terrific. The restaurant is not large; it is cozy. The whole scene conspires to create a timeless place, a pleasant and tuneful era.
And so the evening moves on and the songs come in random order according the band and McDougald’s sense of the audience. And so here is “Skylark,” and that is followed by “It’s Almost Like Being in Love,” which is followed by “I Only Have Eyes for You.” The band is tight, together. Her voice fills the room with sound and emotion.
A group of three men, coats and ties and convention lanyards, enters.
“Are we interrupting a private party?” one asks.
“Oh, no,” says Demirdjian. “Join us. You are more than welcome.”
They decide to stay and settle in to eat and listen.
“That is so satisfying, to win over people who didn’t expect anything but a good meal,” McDougald will later say. “There is a lot of politics in the music scene and I know that I can be a polarizing person sometimes. But it is all worth it to me. One night I can be playing with some of the greatest musicians in the world and the next be alone in some tiny room. Or here.”
The three businessmen finish dinner and linger over coffee. There is a break in the music and they pay the check and head toward the door. “We’ll be back,” says one of them to no one in particular. McDougald doesn’t hear that. She is talking to the band. She is laughing.
“After Hours With Rick Kogan” airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.
Source: Chicago Tribune