CONNECTING THROUGH MUSIC
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
An only child who grew up in Cincinnati, jazz vocalist Petra van Nuis today likes nothing more than to be surrounded by talented musicians when she entertains.
She formed the band Petra’s Recession Seven in 2008, right in the middle of the Great Recession. Her six partners in sublime artistry are her husband, Andy Brown (guitar), Art Davis (trumpet), Eric Schneider (reeds), Russ Phillips (trombone), Dan De- Lorenzo (bass), and Bob Rummage (drums).
Each man, other than Brown, ranges in age from 64 to 75.
“Musicians,” the 47-year-old van Nuis insists, “don’t age, because their spirit is so strong. I’ve always sought to work with people who are more experienced than I, more seasoned, because that’s the best way to learn. I’ve learned jazz through them. Russ Phillips’ dad (Russ Phillips, Sr.) performed with Louis Armstrong.
“They’ve also been teachers in the ‘school of life,’” she adds. “I’ve learned their vibe, how they carry themselves on stage and off. They’re into swing music and they swing through life. They’re also nice and humble. It has always been a thrill for me to simply be around them.”
Petra’s Recession Seven will perform music from the Great American Songbook at Studio5 in Evanston on May 5 from 8 to 9:30 p.m.
Studio5 is an intimate performing arts center that also boasts excellent sight lines and comfortable seating. Co-founders Steve Rashid, an Emmy Award-winning composer, and Bea Rashid, a dance educator, choreographer, and theater director, opened the welcoming space in 2016—expanding Dance Center Evanston to include Studio5 as a performing arts venue presenting professional dance and music events among other forms of entertainment.
“It’s a great setting,” van Nuis says. “If you like swing jazz, or classic jazz, and you’re into traditional jazz songs from the 1920s to 1940s, the show is for you. The audience will leave with smiles, because they will have had a rollicking, fun, joyous time. They’ll walk out feeling happy, uplifted. We interact well on stage. People have told us that it’s clear we’re having fun while performing.”
The daughter of the late Pieter, a Baldwin Piano Company employee who tuned pianos and invented piano parts, and Rosalie, a Frank Sinatra fan, Petra van Nuis (pronounced Pay-tra van Nouse) was 6 when she auditioned for a role in a musical that would be staged by the local North Avondale Neighborhood Association (NANA) in Cincinnati.
“My mom first recorded my singing voice when I was 2,” van Nuis says, adding NANA had rented an auditorium at nearby Saint Xavier University for the auditions. “You know how moms are. She thought it was great. I sang ‘Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer’ at my audition. I wanted a part, any part, in the show.”
Years later, at the age of 11, she landed a role with the Cincinnati Opera and got paid for performing for the first time. Being a part of a national tour—another first—followed. Van Nuis attended The School for Creative & Performing Arts (SCPA) in Cincinnati. It was for students in grades 4 through 12 at the time.
She started there in the fifth grade. “It’s a cool place,” van Nuis says. “I danced, sang, and acted there. It was good training for the real world of arts. Not how to be a superstar but how to make a living in the arts. I skipped my lunch period and ate during English so I could take more arts classes. I performed in gigs at afterschool events. “I practically lived at the school.”
One day, in 11th-grade American History class, a new boy at the school caught the attention of van Nuis and more than a few other students. Van Nuis and Andy Brown got to know each other and began dating shortly thereafter.
“One of the first things we did together was decorate a Christmas tree at his house,” van Nuis recalls.
Not too many people can say they had their first kiss while watching the movie The Exorcist, but Petra and Andy—a pair of googly-eyed 16-year-olds then—can.
Perhaps the devil made them do it.
But a serious courtship followed and they got married some eight years later. Van Nuis had earned a BFA at the University of Cincinnati College—Conservatory of Music (CCM) and performed on national tours in musical theater when they exchanged vows 23 years ago. Brown was a blues musician and would become a jazz guitarist.
“I was tired of touring and being on the road all the time,” van Nuis says. “Plus I had dance injuries. I was 24 and I wanted to spend more time with Andy. I’d listen to Andy’s jazz gigs and think, ‘Now that’s artistic and creative.’ In musical theater, you’re told what to do. With jazz you get to create your own show with other freelance musicians. That creative process—I loved it then and I still love it.”
The married couple have performed as a duo all over the country and in several other countries, including Germany, Belgium, and Holland.
Van Nuis’ debut album, A Sweet Refrain, was released in 2006, and six others followed.
Brown booked 30 gigs this April, and his wife wasn’t too far behind, with 24. Busy, busy.
“I have zero pop music in my voice,” says van Nuis, who moved from Roscoe Village in Chicago to Evanston 13 years ago. “It’s probably because I’ve always liked listening to music from different eras. And, as an only child, I hung out with adults a lot at a young age.
“For me, making connections is an essential aspect of music. Music allows me to connect with my band members and our audience.
“Connections enrich us.”
Studio5 is located at 1934 Dempster Street in Evanston. For more information, and for ticket information for Petra’s Recession Seven concert at Studio5 in Evanston on May 5, call 847-328-6683 or visit studio5.dance. Van Nuis’ website address is petrasings.com.