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What is in a melody shared that rings true?
I kept this question in my mind as I sat and talked with guitarist Andy Brown and his lifelong partner and musical confidant, vocalist Petra van Nuis in the backyard of their quaint Evanston home.
We shared a table together over coffee and banana bread as the early October afternoon passed with the steady hum of traffic from Crawford Avenue and gusts of wind from the lake.
Before any of us really realized it, the coffee was long since finished, the banana bread devoured and some hours had slipped by.
They shared their stories and perspectives on a life in music and performance, both as partners and as individuals. As they mused on the truths and half truths about show business and spoke more specifically about the relative rewards and realities of carving out a living as professional jazz musicians, the insights abounded.
The interplay between Mr. Brown and Ms. van Nuis is as seamlessly at ease and flowing in conversation as it is when they are on stage together trading fours.
They complement each other’s phrasing, augment ideas, punctuate each other’s sentences and clip footnotes to the details of one another’s stories. It is a beautiful and spooky thing to be in the presence of that kind of invisible dialogue.
Becoming sweethearts in their teens, they have performed together ever since. Over the years they have carved their own notch in Chicago and the larger Midwest jazz scene and cultivated a dedicated following among jazz fans and musicians alike.
They have played all over the United States, Canada and Europe and have been featured acts at jazz festivals at home and abroad. As a duo they performed every Sunday at the matinee show on the stage at the now-shuttered Pete Miller’s for more than a decade.
Fans can catch them separately or together almost any night at one of the major venues in the city, at one of their weekly residencies at Winters, Jazz Showcase, Andy’s Jazz Club and the Green Mill.
Even though a musician of such a high caliber, Mr. Brown is an extremely kind and gentle person, his voice is soft and welcoming. A genuine warmth and contentedness colors his playing.
In the sense that there is a time and a place for everything, he exudes the true and sound beauty of that maxim.
The faces in the crowd at one of his shows are at once both young and old, and all manage to lose themselves in the swell of his sound and marvel at the generosity and humbleness inherent in his playing.
In any setting he is a master at blending his personality and insight into the performance without straying from the simple and profound purpose of playing music that is truly enjoyable.
Ms. van Nuis’s vocals are extraordinarily expressive and delicate. Reminiscent of the immortal Blossom Dearie, her sound is poetic and light but not without evoking a true depth of experience and tone that is undeniably the real thing.
In any iteration of groups with which she plays, in sharing a duet or leading her own group, Petra’s Recession Seven, Ms. van Nuis puts her own distinctive mark on whatever musical endeavor she is involved in.
Her most recent CD, a series of duets with pianist Dennis Luxion, titled “Because We’re Night People,” was released last year after a live recording at Piano Forte. The album is a thrilling showcase of an aptly numbered 13 tunes that paint a noir-ish portrait of late night living and jazz club dwelling.
Born in New York City, Mr. Brown relocated to Cincinnati at a young age. He and Ms. van Nuis met as teenagers at The School for Creative Performing Arts in Cincinnati. It was the beginning of a partnership in both life and music that would carry them together throughout the years.
After high school, they both attended the conservatory in Cincinnati where Ms. van Nuis pursued a degree in performance but Mr. Brown dropped out after a year to begin playing as a full-time musician.
Picking up guitar at the age of 15, he found in the blues a formative listening. He cites B.B. King, Otis Rush, Magic Sam as major early influences. It was later on that he started to get into jazz and began listening to the records more closely. Ben Webster, Lester Young and Duke Ellington are early influences that he points to.
“Cincinnati was a cool place then. It was a little behind the times. The jazz audience wasn’t just looking to have their mind blown. They were looking for good music, to enjoy it,” Mr. Brown said.
While still in high school, he got his first big gig with a blues outfit called Cincinnati Slim and the Headhunters. They played the late night clubs and dives all over Ohio. It was Mr. Brown’s break and his first real taste at playing with a steady group.
At that same time he began following Cincinnati guitar legends Cal Collins and Kenny Poole. Mr. Poole had played with Benny Goodman and Rosemary Clooney.
“They were the twin towers of guitar there.” They took Mr. Brown under their wing and showed him the ropes.
Asked if he would say he formally “studied” with Mr. Collins and Mr. Poole, Mr. Brown chuckles. “I mean, not formally. Those guys you know, they were of that era, they got into music so they didn’t have to study.” Mr. Brown’s playing today reflects the threads and echoes the ties of their influence.
In the early 2000s, Mr. Brown and Ms. van Nuis made the move to Chicago, got their bearings and started playing jazz seriously.
“We came to it relatively late, compared to most professional people,” says Mr. Brown, “which was good in a way, because we kind of avoided the sort of educational pitfalls that you can find yourself in nowadays.”
Ms. van Nuis nods to her experience in learning to sing jazz as, “More the way it used to be done, where you just kind of find people in your town that you dig and follow them around. You learn by watching and doing.”
On being a working musician and balancing that task with the more elusive journey of finding one’s own voice, he comments. “You work on the craft and the art evolves naturally.”
How and when to make that jump is difficult to discern when there is no guidebook.
“Transferring from the mind of a student to the mind of a professional practitioner, that’s a challenge. We’re all students. Especially in jazz, you’re tied into the history of it. You’re tied into the greats. Everyday you’re comparing yourself to them and listening to their records and asking yourself, ‘Why don’t I sound like that?’ It’s an endless weight that you’re always learning how to get up from under.
“You have to have something to say. And that’s hard to teach. Is it an old song? Is it an old composer? It doesn’t matter. It’s just the medium through which this thing that somebody wants to say is coming through.”
Commenting on the reality of a life in a jazz, Mr. Brown and Ms. van Nuis are frank. She pulled out from an archive a folio of old posters – dozens of them from past gigs at libraries, one after another after another.
“You’ve got to work, man,” she exclaimed, laughing. This writer thinks that seeing a jazz trio at a library is just about the pinnacle of hip, but nevertheless, it still speaks to the fact that “it’s not always going to be that smoky club from Peter Gunn,” Mr. Brown says, referencing a famous quote of his longtime guitar hero Joe Pass.
“You’re playing joints, saloons, restaurants, weddings, birthday parties, funerals.” Mr. Brown rattles off the list of what seems to be an endless Rolodex of absurd gigs flashing before his eyes.
As longtime Evanston residents, they have been fixtures around town for some time. They played regularly at Pete Miller’s for almost 15 years. Ms. Van Nuis and Mr. Luxion played the last show there the night before its sudden closing – an unfortunate loss to the strip in downtown Evanston. Perhaps something else will come up and fill the spot.
“There’s no happy ending to it,” says Mr. Brown with a big smile that rounds off the edges of what might be perceived otherwise as a cynical statement.
In a way, he might be right, but as long as we can play and listen and love we can still share an October afternoon to talk about it all in a way that’s truly worthwhile.
After all, what’s in a melody? Perhaps its secret lies in forgetting about time in the moment only to look up once it has passed and realize that you’ve been keeping it steadily all along.