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

Don Stille, Grammy Nominated Jazz Accordionist

Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com

A shot I grabbed of Don at a street fair in Chicago, September 2017

A hot, sunny Saturday afternoon welcomed thousands to Edgewater, a small, eclectic neighborhood in the north end of Chicago, where artists of varying kinds had collected to show off their stuff. Potters, jewelers, mask makers and painters line the streets between Broadway and Sheridan, while stages at either end of the two block festival, along with a smaller central stage, open up to performers of various kinds from the community.

I slipped onto the front row to listen to the artist dubbed as a Grammy Nominee, and immediately began snapping photos. I’d grown up listening to my mother play the accordion, and witnessed my cat writhe in torture over it. But I’d never heard anything like this before. Don Stille. Wow.

Don’s music is a fusion of pop, classical, and traditional music into a style unique to him. His brilliant playing, speeding through the notes, or gracefully stroking the keys while expanding the bellows, transports his listeners to other times and worlds. In that other world, twilight sinks in while the water laps against the dock, and all is at peace in the business of the over-planned, overwhelmed lives that we lead. The key to all of this is his accordion, an instrument most people of my generation might consider “lame.”

As he packed up to head out to his next gig somewhere else that day, I grabbed his card and asked if I could call him for an interview. He gladly accepted, and we both went our ways, enjoying the day, more jazz and perhaps a little too much sunshine.

On Monday I called, and still intrigued by his work, I asked him to tell me about his life as a musician.  How had all of this amazing talent on a less commonly explored jazz instrument begun?

“When I was just a little tyke…I had coordination issues. Using my knife and fork wasn’t great.” Door-to-door accordion salesmen frequented St. Louis, where Don Stille was born, and when one particular salesman dropped by one night when Don was only five years old, his dad bought the accordion and signed Don up for lessons. “My dad, in his infinite wisdom thought this was an idea: he thought maybe it would solve my coordination problem… Within a week [of starting lessons], my coordination issues had pretty much cleared up.”

Who could have predicted that such a simple solution to such a normal problem would lead into a lifetime of great music?  “I was really digging the music and was improvising on the music they gave me to learn. It was a common sense thing, and it grew into a lot more.”

Don Stille has been playing ever since. And since he’s now 72, that’s been a while.  He’s played locations like The Green Mill (Chicago), at the New Orleans International Jazz Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, Old Town School of Folk Music, Joe’s Pub and The Metropolitan Club in New York City, DePaul University, Yale University and various other venues across the country. He’s been playing with Bonnie Koloc for years, and in the past has played with famed entertainers and musicians like Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and Ben Vereen, to name only a few.

“I am also a member of the Artist Ensemble in Residence at University of Chicago. And the ensemble New Budapest Orpheum Society or NBOS… [which] did a recording a couple of years back.” A lot of the music that they performed was specifically the Jewish Cabaret music found in Warsaw before and during the Hitler years. Most of it is extraordinarily heavy, but it’s telling the stories of the people in that time, in that place of great darkness in world history. “The album is beautiful…it was sent into a contest for a Grammy…We got a certificate and medal.”

While all of that is pretty awesome, what stands out to me in chatting with Don is the kindness and humility of his spirit. When I first met him at the early afternoon performance at the Edgewater Arts Festival in Chicago, I never would have guessed the acclaim he might grab onto and hold out as his banner. Instead, his energy and graciousness immediately drew me into his music and the conversation during our interview.

I had to ask what jazz means to him. Don responded, “That’s a very complicated question to answer. What it means to me… It is the music, the genre, that enables the performer to improvise, to spontaneously create…” Jazz, as he feels it, is a tremendous medium to express oneself. As to his own music, fusing different genres captures him because, “… It enhances and enlargers what I can express. I’m interested in many different styles of music, and I can call upon that in performance…[jazz uses] whatever genre or musical category to tell my story. I hope that [my audience] will feel that I took them on a musical turn.” Be it a melancholy tune like ‘Round Midnight or the ethereal Crepescule (Twilight), Don hopes to “get people to that place that helps them feel like they’ve had an experience worthwhile. It depends on them, and the way I’m telling the story to get [them there].”

I asked Don to continue. What is his favorite part of performing?  “…Up until 15 years ago, it was about pyrotechnics with piano or accordion.  It was so crucial to me—what the general populace thought. It was sort of an all-about-me mode. I’ve realized more recently that an instrument is like a [bridge] to connect to the audience—to connect them with [the] music.  I enjoy connecting to a sentiment within me, and hope I can convey that to someone who is listening. It’s enabled me to perform on a different level. It’s more rewarding than the way I used to do it.”

“What is something you want our readers to know about you or your music?”

I could hear the smile in Don’s voice as he said, “I would want them to know that what I do comes from the heart. I always try to tell people to believe whatever you believe. I’m not big on religion, but I’m big on [the] spiritual. It’s something that directs us all. We should all try to connect to that spirituality. This music flows through me, and I am enjoying it as much as I hope they are. I’m happy to see what rolls through…and that is what I would want people to know about me.”

With a multitude of jazz greats of bygone years to listen to, emulate and learn from, folks like Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others, I wondered which current artists Don most enjoys playing with or listening to. “…Here in Chicago I’ve always enjoyed playing with world class players, such as: Stewart Miller (Bass), Bob Rummage (Drums), Eric Schneider (Sax), Mark Olen and Art Davis (Trumpet and Flugelhorn), Daniela Bisenius (Violin and my musical soul-mate). There are many more but…too many to name here.”

“And if you could have shared a stage with anyone from jazz history, who would that have been?”

Don took a few moments to think this one through, but answered, “In terms of [a] great musician/trend-setter, and someone with tremendous impact and a good person? I would say Louis Armstrong. As far as I know, everything I’ve read about him, he’s a great human being. Took a lot of heat, got stereotyped by a lot of black musicians, especially the younger generations…he was a tremendous musician…[had] that power as a player and as a person.”

Our discussion of jazz past, naturally led me to ask what direction he sees jazz heading in.

“Since the very beginnings of this Art Form (and this is probably true for any form of artistic expression), each group of emerging young artists has focused on pushing and stretching the fundamental elements that define this music, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic. This is no less true today, which is the good and natural process of growth and evolution. That being said I think the important thing to remember is that amidst the quest for the more complex, thicker musical colors and textures, we must keep the human connection intact. What we express must have its roots planted somewhere in our life-journey experience. Quoting from the timeless classic American Songbook ballad, As Time Goes By, “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”

As our conversation drew to an end, I asked Don what projects he’s currently working on. He said that he’s starting to explore the world of healing music. He’s also currently working on a project with Daniela Bisenius, a Romanian-born violinist. With a specific focus on Gypsy Jazz, aiming to educate, they’re booking their performances into libraries and the like. To learn more about Don and his music, please check out his website.

Posted in Chicago, Lifestyle, Musicians & Musica

Natalja: A Jazzy Cabaret Singer, Inspired by Movement and Collaboration

Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com

A shot I snagged of Natalja performing at a street fair in Chicago, September 2017

I came upon the Coffee Studio on Clark Street, here in Chicago, just minutes past 7:30. At first, I didn’t recognize her, but this feeling made me lean in closer to see if the woman sitting there outside was her.  “It is you!”

Natalja looked up from her book, rose to greet me, and we discussed the noise of the traffic at that hour on such a busy street, and decided to take our interview inside where I could actually hear her. Ordering tea and a tasty roll, we found a place in the back to settle in for the next hour and half. I pulled out my phone to record and we laughed over testing the voice recorder and the screen going blank a few times before I had this thing figured out.

I had suspected, back at the Edgewater Arts Festival where I first heard Natalja sing, that I liked her. As our conversation through the evening progressed, I knew I had made a new friend—a kindred spirit in love with jazz and the world of music. So, I asked this Italian songstress how she got into performing.

“I think I’ve always known from an early age that I was on a search for something authentic, and that finding my voice was really a subtle but consistent goal of mine. Even if I didn’t state it out loud, there was a drive to find my voice, and I grew up with piano in my home, and music. And yes, my family on my mom’s side is very musical and artistic in general, specifically music, [but]…I got into sports. I’ve always been a strong athlete. I ended up doing synchronized swimming. It is one of the hardest sports. You have to be graceful, strong, and you have to perform, and you have to have discipline…you practice every day, [for] many hours. And it is physically [taxing], but a well-rounded sport. I would say that is how I got initiated into performing. When you go to a meet, you have to put on a specific swimsuit and make-up and you have to do your hair, and then you have this one chance to show what you’ve worked on for a year in front of judges…it’s pressure. And you use music and the body, and that expression through the body.

“I quickly discovered that is something that came naturally to me and I love it. [But I had to leave synchronized swimming] because I did not like the judging, and wanted the freedom of expression. And that took me to dance, and I started exploring the different ways of using my body, while staying connected to music. The component of music…always gave purpose to movement. That’s also how I got to be multi-disciplinary. And then I got into theatre because there’s expression of the body and voice needed support in terms of story and message.

“Synchronized swimming…that’s part of my childhood. But what really brought me back in terms of performing is that you have to do music, you have to create… You have to sit down at your piano. That was my grandfather. I find it interesting, every time I sit down with an artist who has a strong something…it is someone who has a strong connection with a grandparent, and that is me, too. I use his music…it was really him who appeared to me in a dream. I woke up and I sat down at the piano and, I was 20, and I started by using his music, and using his chords and re-learning how to play. Writing lyrics to his music and then connecting his work with my work and making that show. And that first show was called Return to Self. And it was just his music. His repertoire is pretty big. One day I want to record all his music.”

“So how long have you been performing, Natalja?”

“Well, I would say roughly since 2005. With small things before then, but when I came to Chicago that’s mainly when I started performing, choreographing, writing for music theatre… I wrote a musical with my grandfather’s music, and I’ve collaborated with composers and lyricists on smaller, ten minute things, and then I wrote my show, the Selkie. I have always gravitated towards original work rather than auditioning for existing shows. I wanted to be a part of the free process of making things. It’s kind of like my road. Sometimes I would do other people’s projects, but there were always elements of improvisation and creation on my part. And then I wound up going to school for Theatre Creators. That is heavily based on your own approach, and what you need to tell. It’s…what you make of it, but there are amazing tools for being in touch with your body and finding your authentic works.”

So I asked her how jazz figures into all of these things for her.

“Jazz to me means freedom within a structure. It means diversity, acceptance of differences, being able to step outside the box, and I always find that jazz musicians, at least on stage, look very happy—they look like they’re having fun. I come from a family where all music was present. I didn’t have that beautiful chance to see a lot of live music (because of living in a small town), but I at least had recordings…My family was very into, as far as their own music, the academic approach, like classical. Theory [was very important]…You play and read and try to be perfect. There was always the pressure of not messing up and playing the wrong note. My first approach to making music was that, and I didn’t quite like it. It made me feel like I was never good enough, because I was comparing myself to Mozart. And so jazz gave me the opportunity to see the music differently…not looking at it note by note, but looking at the chords, the progressions, the arc. It is about [my] interpretation and the story inside of that. And of course there is the practice and the discipline and the precision, but there is more playfulness. [Using] the body and the syncopation…and it’s fun to listen to.”

We spoke of many things through the evening, but I wanted her thoughts on jazz today and where she thinks jazz will head in the future.

“I have just come back from an intense week of cabaret,
 (her recent mounting of “The Selkie” in Paris), “[and]…it’s funny how there are moments in life when you are more into one part of life…So right now, Cabaret is more on my mind, but because I come from a love of jazz, my cabaret is very jazzy…I think that jazz is everlasting. There’s this discussion that Cabaret is dying or that opera is dying, or other musical forms. I don’t think anything is dying. There will always be someone passionate enough to keep it alive. And jazz I think transcends. Jazz is not really a style. Already within it there are so many ways to express.

“I see that there are a lot of musicians that record alone. They have maybe a studio at home and they can do anything. So maybe there are going to be a lot of one man bands in the future…Which is not great…the big band is not as prevalent and that’s what I love. And my voice really shines there. And that is maybe a little bit dying. I think mainly because it takes a certain level of management or organization that nowadays people can’t afford or don’t want. We’re independent…In the future I see again maybe more collaborations that require more technology and not people, like people Skyping in. But…I have faith that eventually people will be tired of isolating themselves. I’ve always been an ensemble driven artist, and it’s funny because now I find myself doing a one woman show. But because I am ensemble driven, my show still allows me to collaborate in different ways. [At one point] I had to put together a band. I have a sound engineer, and I have a friend who comes in and gives another ear [to my performances]. And in the future, maybe someone to help me with bookings. Initially I was thinking a full orchestra would be great. But realistically, it has to be [only] me.”

“So, what is something you would like for others to know about you and your music?”

“I would say that my music comes from my body awareness. And it’s been, and it is, a process of connecting many things. That, in my case, accumulates in the voice. [T]here’s a study behind my music that is really rooted in the body. I feel like a lot of people think of the voice as just something that comes out of your mouth, but it’s a whole operation. And I feel that the more you connect to your body, and the more you practice, and the more curious you are about your body…and you know your bones, and where the alignment is and you take care of the nutrition and exercise…the more you do that, the freer your instrument is, and then it is really connected to your soul. [That] is more authentic…more you. And what I want my music to do is to give that responsibility to each person to be responsible for their own self, and not try to imitate a voice or a movement, and to dedicate oneself to listening to one’s own way.”

Natalja is a woman of many talents and interests, dancing with a company in Chicago, as well as mounting her show “The Selkie” around the city (and Paris!). She also embarks on a brand new project in October 2017, combining the elements of the culinary arts and the performing arts from the same people group (such as Italy in this first manifestation). To learn more about her works, or maybe catch one of her shows, visit her website.