Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com
“I went to the auditions for the Rockettes, and [knew] I’d probably get in, since I’d done it the year before…I did the audition and I thought ‘I really don’t want to be here.’ … They’re corny. It was stupid artistically… I had pointe shoes in my bag. I was wrapping them up and I said, ‘I am never doing this again.’” And she never did.
From this cross-roads experience in New York City, after auditioning for a thing she simply was “not in the mood” for, Petra Van Nuis quit and headed home to Cincinnati to pursue what she loved: jazz.
Being a theatre girl myself, I needed to know what it was that would induce a fellow theatre actress/dancer to give up a likely successful career to go in a completely different direction at the age of twenty-four.
Petra had been performing for her whole life. She attended a performing arts school in Cincinnati, Ohio. “It was one of the first performing arts schools. It was revolutionary when it started in the 70s. I started in the mid 80s. It was 4th to 12th grade. That school was a really beautiful place. It was a public school. It [had] kids from different neighborhoods, [and] was racially pretty balanced…I did mostly dance, but some singing and acting. [But] they didn’t have jazz. They had a ‘jazz band’ but they didn’t play jazz…I don’t know what it was.”
And then she met her high school sweetheart, Andy Brown, her now husband. He transferred in from out of state, and they met in the eleventh grade. “He got into jazz first, and that’s kind of how I became involved. I was already exposed [to jazz] because of theatre, but this was a more natural way—less planned out…” They both began gigging out, and Andy naturally curved into jazz. “I would go to all his gigs, and you were just listening to each other. Everything in theatre is so rehearsed, especially in dance. So I kind of liked the idea of winging things.” She began listening to others in the jazz scene in Cincinnati. “Cincinnati has great live music for such a small town. They were just more honest and more spoken, more conversational, more personal. And I just like the freedom.”
“All my classmates went on to Broadway Theater and things. The school is known for that. I did some national tours and things, but by 24, [I] decided ‘ I’m changing careers.’”
She’d come to love jazz by now, and she knew this was her path. “‘I’m going to be a jazz singer.’ I don’t know how, but I’m going to do it.’ I was working at a restaurant, but planned to work there as little as possible and just practice as much as possible. I listened to a lot of music…maybe I could do a gig one day.”
And how she got her start?
“My husband was talking one day with a wedding client, and they wanted to add a singer, and he said, ‘I know somebody!’ And it was before the internet when people could look people up online, and I didn’t have any gigs. She asked how she could hear me [so] I sang for her on the phone.”
Since then, Petra has sung across the Midwest (Ohio, Michigan and Chicagoland specifically), the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, as well as other locations in the U.S.A. She’s a regular at jazz festivals and clubs around Chicago, where you can often catch her performing with her husband, Andy Brown, the talented jazz guitarist.
“So what is it you most enjoy about performing jazz?”
“I enjoy when the magic happens. I think everyone does. It’s probably 95% that isn’t, but that 5% when everybody’s listening to each other, and the audience really hears something…When you really feel that sincere emotion. You connect with yourself. I call it magic: that moment when you really connect with yourself, the other musicians, the audience. When you feel those sparks fly. [I also love when you’re] singing something you’ve never done before—when you take a chance and it works. A lot of times, you improvise, but every time you take a chance and you release yourself and surrender in your brain—that little voice stops yapping at you. You can really surrender and explore without fear and feel and hear something. The little voice trying to tell you what to do next… ‘say this on the [microphone]’ or ‘do this song next.’ I try to listen to that intuitive voice and try to follow. I don’t reject it, most of the time. Sometimes it leads you astray, and sometimes you say something that’s really stupid. But you know, what? Screw it—you have to try!”
I want to know what make artists tick, so I always ask musicians and other artists what they hope their audiences will receive from their work.
Petra responded: “I hope that number one, they would feel something from the pieces, from the ballads or the more somber pieces, [and] have fun on the more jovial pieces—that they would have a good time [and] feel more alive. Any live performance should help people feel more alive. For me, that’s usually what I take away. Once again that connectedness, in the best of circumstances that communion. [As the artist] you’re in charge of that communion, bringing everyone together…It doesn’t have to be that dramatic, just connection to other human beings, which I feel is kind of rare in this day of technology.”
“What do you think of the current state of jazz?”
“Obviously, I would like things better if it was more appreciated or more a part of the general psyche of the day. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. It’s always kind of grass roots things. Don Stille probably caught the tail end of the good old days. I’m 42 so I caught a little bit of it. A lot of the people I play with today were around for the older days and have played with original players. For me to play with them…I’m like the cat who played with the cat who played with the original cat. It’s a lineage. I feel like my generation is the last generation to have contact with the originals. I wish there were young people into it still. I don’t think it’s something a lot of young people have a lot of exposure to. Strangely enough it’s kind of used as a background music at Starbucks or something. I was exposed to a lot in movie soundtracks and things.” An example she gave from her own life was that pop artists have done some jazz. “I knew who Natalie Cole was, but I didn’t know who Nat King Cole was, [and] that bridged the gap for me. We find little ways to do our thing. We can slide in as background music for weddings and openings of shopping malls. We can do a lot utility gigs. There [are a] lot of background places [to play]. There aren’t as many places for shows, [though] there are a few places like jazz clubs. It’s funny. Nowadays a good place for concerts in libraries. If you have the will…if you aren’t alive without performing, there’s going to be outlets. They might not be glamorous. A lot of artists bemoan the good old days. But that’s long gone. Getting people to come…it’s a tough racket. You just have to get into what you can do and make the most of it.”
“What is something you want our readers knew about you or your music?”
“Many things…maybe one thing is that it’s hard. Not to complain, but it’s kinda… It’s tough, this being a self employed artist. Obviously, there are other things that are a lot of tougher. A lot of people see [it as] I’m just having fun. It’s great, but it’s hard artistically and business-wise. I try my hardest, but it doesn’t always come out exactly right, so please forgive! I pretty much do this full time [and] that’s why it’s hard. It’s also harder maybe when you have another job, too. It’s a constant hustle. I like the people that kind of understand it, and [that are] willing to support it. There are a lot of patrons… I have a really nice fan who kept bugging us to make a CD. He asked how much it would be and I told him it’s usually about $6000, and he said, okay, I’ll do that. It’s not about the money, but putting in a lot of time and not getting jaded…we’re all trying.”
With much gratitude towards her fans and other patrons of hers, as well as patrons of other artists, she continued. “I think some people think of the arts as a selfish pursuit. We enjoy it, but I think we’re also trying to use our ability to bring some joy and some connection and bring something positive to the world and create something positive, create something positive rather than destroy something. I want them to know how grateful and thankful [we are] for what they do: people who come and support us. [Sometimes] there are some people who are so supportive and send nice emails afterwards. I want them to know how much it means to us. A generous gesture just makes us feel good. Someone is listening.”
She’s been inspired by the artists of the past, and linking her own story with the history of jazz around the world, singing with people who played with the people who played with the people who played with the original artists who created jazz. As she releases CDs (check out her website: petrasings.com), gigs out, and balances life and work with her husband and cats, she continues inspiring others, like me. Talking with Petra about her path in jazz, her love of just the music, and her pursuits inspires me to get out there myself with my own dreams. Who cares what society says? If you don’t want to be a Rockette, go sing jazz.