Petra van Nuis Celebrates the Art Of Swing
By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
"I always see every gig as a chance to hire someone more experienced than me and to learn something," says van Nuis of her seasoned colleagues. "All those guys have such a history — all the people they’ve played with! My idea of good leadership is to get people that you believe in, that you love, that you trust, and then kind of cut them loose, let them do their thing."
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The Great Depression of the late 1920s and ’30s ruined lives and spread gloom around the world, yet somehow sublime music emerged during that time from the imaginations of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and other masters.
So when the Great Recession hit in 2008, Chicago jazz singer Petra van Nuis took inspiration from the earlier economic catastrophe and decided music would be the best response.
Thus in the fall of that year was born her aptly named Recession Seven band, an ensemble of top-notch Chicago instrumentalists playing largely Depression-era repertoire (though in recent years the band has pushed into 1940s modernity).
That the ensemble still performs steadily across the Chicago area a decade later speaks to the value and ingenuity of van Nuis’ concept, the caliber of the players involved and the elan of the singer’s leadership. For even with a rotating cast of musicians, the Recession Seven continues to celebrate classic swing music with fidelity to its stylistic demands, but also with the verve and freedom of in-the-moment jazz improvisation.
What we hear when van Nuis and the Recession Seven take the stage, as they will Saturday evening at Winter’s Jazz Club, is not a museum piece but, rather, first-rate musicians breathing new life into standards and obscurities that richly deserve it.
“We’re not trying to re-create anything,” says van Nuis, whose lineup at Winter’s will feature several founding band members, including eminent clarinetist Kim Cusack, trombonist Russ Phillips and guitarist Andy Brown (van Nuis’ husband).
“We’re just trying to play music that swings, music that’s fun, music that moves us. There’s no agenda, necessarily.
“Some bands that specialize in traditional repertoire are so strict: They won’t play anything after 1934, or whatever. We don’t really care about that. It’s just stuff that we like.”
The ensemble conveyed that sense of joy and exuberance earlier this year, with an important engagement at the Jazz Showcase. From the first notes of the first set, van Nuis and friends established the creative spirit and intellectual curiosity of the venture by opening with stride piano virtuoso James P. Johnson’s “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight),” not exactly the kind of fare listeners typically encounter at the Showcase or most other jazz rooms. In “Swing That Music,” a tune immortalized by Armstrong, tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider’s robust approach to swing rhythm, trumpeter Bob Ojeda’s long, silken strands of melody and trombonist Phillips’ irrepressibly inventive phrase-making spoke to the level of musicianship involved.
“I always see every gig as a chance to hire someone more experienced than me and to learn something,” says van Nuis of her seasoned colleagues.
“All those guys have such a history — all the people they’ve played with! Russ Phillips’ dad played with Louis Armstrong, so he grew up watching in the wings. Bob Ojeda was playing with Stan Kenton’s band” in his youth.
And Schneider famously worked in the bands of Earl Hines (a contemporary of Morton and Armstrong) and Count Basie.
Those kinds of resumes, and the musical knowledge they connote, help explain the credibility and authenticity of van Nuis’ Recession Seven, as does her performance manner onstage. For though she clearly stands as the leader of the band, calling tunes and setting tempos, she constantly yields the spotlight to the instrumentalists.
Or, as she puts it, with characteristic modesty and grace, “I sing my chorus, stay out of the way and pay attention.”
Which makes you wonder how she finesses the dual challenges of leading a band as a woman in the still male-dominated world of jazz and as a vocalist in a jazz culture that doesn’t always take singers seriously.
“It is a challenge,” says van Nuis. “I would say less the female part and more being possibly the least experienced member of the band. That’s why I sometimes feel funny telling someone else what to do.
“But, as a singer, you’re often the person who has procured the gig, so you’re often the leader. I try to be very loose and very mellow.
“I try to not exactly be the boss. My idea of good leadership is to get people that you believe in, that you love, that you trust, and then kind of cut them loose, let them do their thing.”
And what of the dynamic of having her husband in the band?
“Being married, for both this gig and all gigs, is good and bad,” she says.
“At first it was pretty hard, but we’ve worked out the kinks. Honestly, now I think it’s more of a benefit than a detriment. We know each other so well.
“A lot of times I’ll think: I’ll tell Andy to drop out, and I’ll just sing with the bass. And, almost telepathically, he’ll do that. It’s not necessarily about being husband and wife. It’s playing together a long time.”
Petra van Nuis Interview
By Rita Juanita Mock, Jazzgroupiez
"I enjoy when the magic happens...the real magic that occurs when everybody's listening to each other and the audience really hears something…When you really feel that sincere emotion...that moment when you really connect with yourself, the other musicians, the audience. When you feel those sparks fly...every time you take a chance and you release yourself and surrender in your brain—that little critical voice stops yapping at you. You can really explore without fear and feel and hear something."
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"I went to the auditions for the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular 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.' …The show is corny and not artistically satisfying… After the audition, I was wrapping up my pointe shoes 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 dance, singing and acting. [But] they didn't have jazz. They had a 'jazz band' but they didn't play jazz…I didn't know what jazz 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 standard repertoire] because of theatre, but the way jazz singers sang the Great American Songbook was a more natural way—less planned out…" Andy began gigging out, and Petra naturally curved into jazz. "I would go to all his gigs, and the players 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 a smaller town. The local jazz singers' interpretations were just more honest and more spoken, more conversational, more personal than theatre. And I just liked the freedom."
"All my classmates from college went on to Broadway Theater and things. The Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music where I went is known for that. After college 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 around the country 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 is fun, but isn't the real magic that occurs 5% of the time 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 critical voice stops yapping at you. You can really surrender and explore without fear and feel and hear something. When the critical voice stops, then the intuitive little voice can finally be heard 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 I say something that's really stupid on the mic. 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. At 72, my colleague Don Stille, who you recently interviewed 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 more young people into it. 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 jazz in 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."
Regarding performance opportunities, Petra says, "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 is libraries. If you have the will…if you aren't alive without performing, there's going to be outlets for you to play. 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 to know 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 COST and I told him it's usually about $6,000, and he said he would pay for it, which is to me the true definition of a patron of the arts. For us practitioners, it's not only about trying to make enough 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, 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 dance with the Rockettes, go sing jazz.
Duo take jazz, one another, to heart
By Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
"I don't know what it is about us, but we've always hung out with people older than us," van Nuis says. "It is an amazing thing to see and hear those of a previous generation still so vital and still growing creatively. It is so inspiring."
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They fell in love, first with one another and then with jazz.
They were teenagers at Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts. She was born and bred. He had just moved there from New Paltz, N.Y. They were starting 11th grade.
"Andy was a hot item because he was new and cute," says Petra van Nuis.
They met in American history class. After that class they talked, and that was that.
"Our first conversation was brief, and I know it sounds silly and I was a hormonal teenager, but I felt like I knew him right away and was in love with him by the time we got to the stairwell," she says.
"I fell in love with her five minutes after we met," says Andy Brown.
He was a guitarist and saxophonist, focused firmly on the blues. She was a vocalist, focused on musical theater and dancing.
Now, these many years later, they are firmly part of the local jazz world, busy and happy and happily married.
But back to Cincinnati for a moment.
They graduated high school, and "our moms let us live together...Crazy, huh?" says van Nuis.
She went to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and earned a bachelor's degree in musical theater. Brown dropped out after a month at the same school and started playing around town six nights a week with a bluesman called Cincinnati Slim.
Then Brown got hooked on jazz and went back to school to study saxophone. He switched to guitar and dropped out after a year "taking the early exit program," he says - deciding to teach himself by hanging out with the local jazz musicians and listening to and transcribing classic recordings.
Van Nuis did a couple of years of musical theater and was often on tour. She didn't like being away from Brown, and while recovering from a foot injury suffered on the road, she, too, began to be drawn to jazz and "decided to do what Andy was doing and teach myself in the old-school way of sitting at the feet of local elders and also transcribing from recordings." In 1999 they married and began performing together. Then, as do many ambitious young people of all creative stripes, they moved to New York.
"We were there for a little more than a year and met and saw some of the best musicians in the world," Brown says. "But there just weren't enough places to play. We would meet the greatest players on the planet, and they'd be hustling around to get a Sunday brunch gig."
And so they came here in 2003, and here they have stayed.
Onstage they are exciting in the most intimate ways. Off it, they are charming and thoughtful.
They also appreciate the value of their elders.
"I don't know what it is about us, but we've always hung out with people older than us," van Nuis says. "It is an amazing thing to see and hear those of a previous generation still so vital and still growing creatively. It is so inspiring."
She speaks with deep affection of the amazing pianist-singer Judy Roberts "and all the great advice she has given me," and remembers a conversation she had with the great jazz trumpeter Bobby Lewis. (Catch him whenever you can; bobbylewis.com.)
"I told him that my favorite singer was Peggy Lee," says van Nuis, adding that Lewis recalled, "Oh, I played with her many times," and then proceeded to tell the young singer many stories.
This sort of connection with the musical past is meaningful to van Nuis and Brown. They know there are all sorts of lessons to be learned and they are eager students.
A few years ago, Brown was booked to play in a trio for Barbra Streisand's appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "During rehearsal, the producer tells us we have to cut (down) a song. He said, 'America can only hear a minute and 30 seconds of music,'" Brown says. "Instead of getting angry or protesting, Streisand and her pianist simply cut the song ('Make Someone Happy'). And she nailed it. They showed what it means to be consummate pros."
The couple has no plans for kids. "Between the weird hours and low pay, it just wouldn't be prudent," says van Nuis. "One of us would have to get a 'real' job, and that doesn't seem to be in the cards."
What is in the cards is more performing and learning. "We have become specialists in older songs and we gravitate there," Brown says. "We explore music we care about, but we also have to make a living and play what people want to hear."
That included four renditions of "In Your Easter Bonnet" at one recent Sunday brunch, but it has also compelled people to approach them and say, "I thought I hated jazz, but you guys..."
They play frequently as a couple but just as frequently with others. (For schedules, see petrasings.com and andybrownguitar.com. There you will also find critics praising their work: DownBeat magazine wrote that van Nuis has "a light, gorgeous, and fairly delicate voice...a gift for melody and plenty of rhythmic confidence"; the Tribune's Howard Reich called Brown's work "superb but serenely understated.")
Sunday is a particularly busy day for both. In addition to their weekly Sunday 5-9 p.m. engagement at Pete Miller's in Evanston, they play the Riverside Arts Festival early in the day, and Brown will perform with organist Chris Foreman late night at the Green Mill.
Sunday also happens to be their 15th wedding anniversary.
The wedding was a simple affair. "Just a trip to the courthouse with our moms," van Nuis says. "Afterward, we had lunch at my mom's house, and it was raining, so we went to see the new aquarium. Music? I do remember dancing in my mom's living room to Rosemary Clooney singing 'Tenderly.'"
Any special plans?
"In classic jazz musician 'can't say "no" to a gig' fashion, we're booked all day," says van Nuis. "It's cool, though. We'll celebrate another day."
An Afternoon of Stories and Jazz
By Patrick Romanowski, Evanston RoundTable
"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...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."
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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. Collins 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.
WBEZ Chicago 91.5 (NPR)
Listen to Petra and guitarist Andy Brown's performance/interview with Tony Sarabia, host of "The Morning Shift"
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WGN 720 AM
Listen to Petra's interview with Rick Kogan, host of "After Hours"
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WRHU 88.7 FM (Radio Hofstra University)
Listen to Petra's interview with John Bohannon, host of "The Jazz Café"