IT'S A SULTRY August night, perfect for a slow, cool quaff of jazz. Across the courtyard of the restaurant, a five-piece band is grouped around a grand piano, with jazz vocalist Michael-Ellyn Schetzle at the microphone
Her voice pierces the heat of the evening with a cool, ethereal rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” The young singer stretches her arms out to the crowd, as though catching the falling “leaves of red and gold” of the classic Johnny Mercer lyric, her auburn hair flashing glints of light as she moves in the spotlight.
Swiveling to connect with the audience behind her, she then makes fierce conversation with an answering saxophone. And you feel transported from the Madrona neighborhood eatery, St. Clouds on 34th Avenue, to a side street in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
She's tiny, standing five-foot-one, but projects a large stage presence, which may come from her local experience acting and competing in beauty pageants. Crowned Miss Downtown Kirkland in 2005, later competing for Miss Washington in 2008, she easily works the crowd with smiles and patter.
But as a singer who came up through school and church choirs from the age of six or seven, she’s most serious about her music. “Singing -- it’s like breathing; it’s so part of who I am,” she says.
The Holmes Point/ Finn Hill native performs with several jazz and rock ensembles in Seattle and the Eastside, including the No Jive Five, with whom she recorded a CD and regularly sings at St. Clouds, as well as Thursty Love, (named for playing Thursdays!). Both are “among the more successful acts,” says Aaron Wheetman, music director at St. Clouds, having played this venue for eight or more years. They play jazz, blues, samba and some originals.
Locally, she’s also played in small duos and trios at Kirkland’s , the Parklane Gallery, at , and several local restaurants and wineries (Such as Red Sky in Woodinville), as well as being a Dickens caroler. While she works by day as a medical assistant, she’s in constant demand as a performer.
Schetzle grew up on Finn Hill, and while working her way through college as a barista at the Three Bears drive-through espresso stand (now Caffé Joy) on Juanita Drive, she used to serve up her lattes with occasional samplings of songs. Then an aspiring singer playing with various local rock and R&B bands, she would post her upcoming gigs on the window of the coffee booth.
Today she serves up songs with a rich, well-tempered flavor of someone with twice her experience. Band leader and pianist Mike Withey praises her “great range” as a performer both in terms of pitch, but more importantly versatility. She’s a performer who combines “a ‘young’ voice with a veteran’s ability to listen to where other band members are going with their solos and join us there,” he says. “She is a stand-out on both jazz standards and popular music like Route 66 and Fever and can scat and improvise with the best of them.”
SINGING IN choruses prepared her for harmonizing with other singers and musicians and gave her that veteran’s edge. She got her first break singing the solo in the school Christmas pageant with the Sandburg Singers, at , in the fourth grade.
But it was while touring internationally with the Northwest regional Columbia Choirs that she really honed her vocal skills, learning the tight polyphonic harmonies of religious music and gospel. With these choirs, she travelled to France, Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe, over 10 years’ time.
“It was such a positive experience," she says, recalling a particularly profound memory of her fellow musicians on the Italian Riviera. Others might remember the beaches and glitzy shops, but she remembers the evening her American choral group sat at an outside cafe and broke into the gospel song "Goin' up Yonder," their voices echoing through an alleyway in San Remo.
"There is no feeling like being in a foreign land and just breaking into song," she says. "Music makes for instant communication between people of different cultures."
After college, she also gained performing skills working as a model and actress for advertising commercials. But she is most comfortable singing jazz, inspired by singers as different as blueswoman Bonnie Raitt and Christian rocker Francesca Battistelli.
Being a vocalist, she feels, means having to address the emotions you’re feeling inside, to reach back to memory, while at the same time being keenly aware of your surroundings, as an actor would be playing a character: “You lose yourself enough in the song that the truth is coming through.”
“Michael-Ellyn is great -- she’s definitely one of the most energetic singers,” says Wheetman of St. Clouds. “Some performers get up and just sing. But with Michael Ellyn, you get the whole package.”
Beyond singing, she's also added another notch to her belt: Working as a vocal coach. Singing, she believes, has myriad benefits for people. "Singing is a way to help people gain confidence. It’s a way to build muscle memory," she adds. Coaching and teaching are extensions of her credo of helping others succeed.
"I think that’s the best way to go through life -- seeing others doing well," says Schetzle. "It’s a cure for any depression."