Posted in Chicago, Lifestyle, Musicians & Musica

Petra van Nuis—from Radio City Rockettes to International Jazz Singer

Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com

A photo I grabbed of Petra singing at a street fair in September 2017

“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.

Posted in Chicago, Lifestyle, Musicians & Musica

Andy Brown, a Man of International Talent with a Heart for Local Music

I was able to snag a shot while Andy performed at Cellars Bar and Grill in January 2018

Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com – 2018

He has played piano since he was young and started saxophone in middle school. But at fifteen, he got a guitar, and found his passion. “Some of the musical things I had learned as a young guy [transferred to guitar]. My dad wants to take credit for it…and he should take some of it. But until I got into it on my own, it didn’t really do much for me.”

Andy Brown is an established jazz guitarist who gigs around the country, as well as jazz festivals in places like Rio de Janeiro, the Netherlands, and Germany, and more local fests like Chicago Jazz Festival and the Chautauqua Jazz Party in Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s played with renowned artists such as Scott Hamilton, Howard Alden, Ken Peplowski, Kurt Elling, and even accompanied Barbara Streisand on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009. He’s performed for Nobel Peace Prize dinners where presidents and former presidents were in attendance, and once for the opening night gala for the Chicago NATO Summit.

But what makes Andy’s story fascinating is his journey into jazz and his many insights into that existence today and the years ahead.

“How long have you been playing jazz?”

“Probably since I was about seventeen years old. That was in 1992. I started playing a lot of gigs since I was in high school and have been doing it ever since. I started as more of a Blues artist. I was playing in Cincinnati. [I] started playing with older musicians in my senior year of high school, two or three nights a week.” They had steady work all over town, playing up to six nights a week. “We had a van and went around and played every night. I did that pretty much full time right out of high school. It wasn’t that really unusual for people in jazz…some didn’t make it through high school. Like Stan Getz. Nowadays there’s a huge academic side of jazz, where mostly it’s an industry to provide income for people who don’t have enough gigs. It’s best to go right into it. Just go do it. I’ve been doing it ever since, full-time.”

“Who have been some of your biggest influences?”

“My biggest influence was a guy from Cincinnati. I lived in Cincinnati. Kenny Poole, a local kind of genius. [He was] a world class player [who], through circumstances and choices of his own, stayed in Cincinnati, and built a following and a reputation. He was very eccentric. He set a good sort of [image] of what a good musician was. He played almost every night and I would go and listen. There weren’t too many other young musicians going and doing this, so I sort of had him all to myself. Eventually he had me sit in with him, and I would learn from that. We would feed off of each other. He would give me advice in the moment…what was working and what wasn’t. Another influence was Cal Collins, an equally great jazz guitarist, who had just gotten more fame. He was Benny Goodman’s guitarist, and he was in his mid 40s at the time, and all of a sudden he’s playing Russia, and all over Europe and the world. Through that association with Benny Goodman, he started making a name for himself. He never moved to New York or L.A., but stayed in Cincinnati. He was playing around Cincinnati all the time, too. Sometimes he would play with Kenny Poole. Cal was real hot, and Kenny was reserved and mellow. They were like fire and ice. Together they had everything you could want to hear. Cal gave me tips, never any lessons…they both exemplified what it means to be a good jazz guitarist and what it means to be good. It was sort of lucky, every town has their own people, and they were the best I’ve heard to this day. They’re two of the best I’ve ever heard. Not too often two of the better people who have ever done it [are in the same smaller town]. It could be part of why I’m a jazz guitarist. They helped to shape me [as a guitarist]. The style I wanted to listen to and play is totally from them. We listen to records from long ago. Most of our heroes are long gone. Most of my main music heroes are people I heard in person and even played with. It’s just what I saw, my playing isn’t a throw-back, it’s what I saw and it was a natural part of what I do—it’s what was around me.”

The more I spoke with Andy and listened to his story, the more fascinated I grew. This man has seen and experienced some amazing music, and when I listen to him, I do.

“What do you enjoy most about performing?”

“That’s the medium through [which] music takes place. Almost like if a tree falls in the forest…if it falls, does it make a sound? As a jazz musician, that’s when the music happens. You improvise in public. If you’re improvising in your room, does it even take place? The whole act of creating the work of art by a painter is private, but it’s presented in public after. [For] the improvising artist, the art form is only done in public. It’s creating the music. The music doesn’t really exist except when you’re performing…it doesn’t really exist unless you have an audience… That’s the nature of performing arts—you have glitches, unlike movies or recordings where you can edit.”

Sensing that Andy would have some real insight into the subject, I asked what he felt about the current state of jazz and its future.

“[That’s] a good question. Obviously it’s an opinion. I think jazz is probably progressing similarly to the way Western classical music went…You can trace the evolution of the music. Playing parties, concerts and teaching. It took a lot longer for western classical [than jazz to evolve] of course. Bursting open with freedom and more tonal[ity]. Reaching its outer limits. There’s parallels within all western arts.”

Everything gets more and more “out there,” Andy noted, and loses its form. Comparing music to other art forms, he asked where the visual arts go from Jackson Pollack?

He continued: “Classical [music] got more academic [and] competitive, and now every virtuoso is out there teaching at universities. And it seems like jazz is going that same way.” No longer in the taverns and clubs it’s “…organizations that are affiliated with cultural institutions that program concerts. The jazz academia world has exploded. [Now] it’s [about] getting into teaching… the new landing [of] a steady gig [is] getting your adjunct teaching gig at universities. All the students are pursuing their PhDs just to get adjunct teaching jobs. If you have a lot of heavyweight credentials, you basically have to have a PhD or at least a Masters to teach. The whole thing is more and more around the academy and its tentacles. Like classical music, it’s not in the night clubs and taverns and local music scene. And I see jazz going that way. I think it’s inevitable, and I think it’s unfortunate. I think jazz should be more grass roots like blues and bluegrass. They’re beating the drum to get jazz respected as the cultural music of America. I wish they would just leave it alone and just let it survive and let it grow on its own. It may still do that, but I just see it going [that way].”

Andy gave examples of this direction. “There’s this series Symphony Centre Presents. Each year they have more and more concerts, they have 14 or 15 concerts scheduled. Like Herbie Hancock, Keith Gerad, from fall till spring. How many people are going to go to more [concerts and gigs] than that? It’s all great, but it helps lead people away from the jazz scene. We always go to store front theatres, it’s just more fun…but if you go to Broadway in Chicago, that’s all you do. How many more nights a year are people going to go out? It makes it tough for the smaller community, I think. I guess it’s probably nothing new. People go to the big shows…and where does that leave the local theatre? There’s this pride in the Chicago theatre scene, but Chicago is not New York, so they make a big deal about when New York people come in. So they go there, instead of seeing the local [shows]. In Cincinnati, there are only locals, so no one had a choice but locals. The Symphony Centre is great, but the more concerts they do, the less people go out to community performances.

“There’s always talk about how to get people into the clubs, it’s cool to get people to jazz festivals, and it’s the one jazz experience for people in a year. Why don’t they have these festivals set in clubs instead of in Millennium Park? Everybody wants to expose people to it, but…I think that’s where it’s headed: festivals and subscription series and less Kenny Poole playing in a little jazz club. It depends on the vibe that you promote.”

I’ve got to agree with Andy. The concert series like the Symphony Centre has are awesome, and help to expose people to the arts, specifically jazz, in a broad way. But the best way to support and grow our jazz community is by going to the local clubs and restaurants and smaller venues where our artists play.

I asked Andy other questions, to which he responded with great insight. But since I ask this question, I always want to give the opportunity for that answer to be heard: “What is something you’d like our readers to know about your music?”

Andy replied, “It’s possible to have music be fresh and of the moment, even if it’s not the most cutting edge or current trend. You can be creative within a variety of mediums whether its cutting edge or not. There’s this bag that jazz has to be cutting edge and modern…[like using the] latest heavy metal guitar sound… but…you want it to be fresh and not stale, but that’s something different than a new style.”

He’s got regular gigs at both the Green Mill and at a local restaurant called Cellars Bar and Grill, and plays at festivals and fairs, and other locations and venues on the regular. To keep up with his playing schedule check out his site.