Biography: Formative Years: Born in Columbus, Ohio and raised by her parents and also her live-in Grandfather in the small town of Delaware, Erin McDougald was the oldest of two girls. Attending parochial schools from first grade through senior year of high school, Erin was a performer from her first breath of life, it would seem.
Committed to dancing from the age of three and up into her twenties, Erin studied and performed countless shows with the Shirley Jennings Academy of Dance for 14 years, before transferring to the Dance Reach company in Powell, Ohio. In her youth, she rode horses, attempted tennis, loved to swim, but always found her interests guiding her back to the performing arts.
By the sixth grade, McDougald was taking voice lessons with the popular local songstress Sue Mogan Mattison, where she was introduced to Traditional Folk and Celtic genres, as well as Art Songs and the occasional pop styling, which resulted in numerous “mall studio recordings”. By high school, McDougald was referred to Michele Horsefield, an elderly, reputable cabaret singer in Central Ohio. It wasn’t long before Erin was called upon to sing for weddings, banquets and special events, including, the prestigious honor of singing at the National Cathedral in Washington DC during a school field trip.
Earlier that year, a chance encounter and opportunity to guest-sing at a summertime lobbyist convention (in DC) resulted in Erin meeting President Bill Clinton.
Receiving numerous acceptances and scholarship offers to music schools across the country, Erin decided to pursue a musical theater major at the University of Cincinnati, where she was accepted not in the theatre program, but in the dance division. After her first year and failed second attempt to be accepted into the theatre program –being told she had neither “the look” nor the “star power” to ever make it on Broadway, McDougald transferred to Chicago, a long-time favorite city of hers since childhood. She continued her college education and received her degree in music performance from the highly respected performing arts school, Columbia College.
The Jazz Bug: While in Chicago, studying musical theater at Columbia, Erin was also advised to study under the legendary Jazz Composer and Director of The Chicago Jazz Ensemble, William Russo. He taught a class with co-professor and Chicago jazz singer Bobbi Wilsyn called “Exploring the Art of Music”, which both terrified and fascinated Erin’s thirst to be a better performer.
Although Erin was immediately cast into a memorable, principle role in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in the theater school, she began to pursue voice lessons outside of theater to “stretch her abilities”– this included increasing enrollment in jazz-oriented courses and simultaneously engaging a three year commitment to Classical Vocal Study with the revered concert singer Carol LoVerde, who was the head of Columbia’s music administration at the time.
As Erin acclimated to the Windy City life, far from the small-town foresty-culdesac she grew up on, she was drawn in by the notion of “Chicago jazz”. It seemed to be the pulse of her surroundings. While continuing to be cast in school musicals, rock and roll revues and concert performances, McDougald auditioned for local cruise ship gigs and cabaret club work.
She was accepted into everything she auditioned, to her surprise, and was quickly working steady gigs, on contract, and constantly! As her cabaret femme fatale persona emerged, her decision to edge out of theatrical pieces and into the jazz idiom was encouraged by Bill Russo and German pianist and musical director Thomas Gunther. During this time, Erin was headlining the very popular club Yvette’s and a chic supper-club in the Loop, The Plaza Tavern.
One Monday night she was asked to sit in at Toulouse on the Park by the owner Bob Djahngeri. She was singing with the great Johnny Frigo on violin, and as he introduced her, a man in the crowd insisted she keep singing. That man being Jackie Mason. By the next week, Erin was the new Wednesday night headliner at Toulouse. Meanwhile, Erin’s Grandfather’s alzheimer disease was precipitously gaining upon him.
She found her visits in Ohio with him to be bittersweet as she felt the pride he showed towards her embracing jazz as her music of choice. And as she learned the songs he knew as a young man, bringing back his lucidity (-however fleeting), there fortified an already unbreakable bond between them… and she knew her calling was to sing jazz.
Reality Bites: A great voice doesn’t make one a jazz singer. It’s all about phrasing, the bending of those perfect notes, the space found inside melodic lines… Phrasing is only something acquired through experience… and life is the experience… so is falling on your face… a lot… in public. Fortunately, it is only by falling that one can truly learn how to land gracefully. Grace has a lot to do with jazz.
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