Palatine musician says playing with Teatro ZinZanni makes him feel like he ‘won the lottery’

Multi-instrumentalist Jon Negus compares playing with Teatro ZinZanni’s quintet to winning the lottery. But the Palatine resident was initially skeptical about joining the cabaret/circus arts hybrid at Chicago’s Cambria Hotel.

In 2019, a violinist friend mentioned she was playing for a circus show and asked if Negus might be interested.

Teatro ZinZanni's “Love, Chaos and Dinner” dazzles thanks to artists like hula hoop contortionist Vita Radionova. Courtesy of Elliot Fisher

“My immediate response was ‘I don’t think so,’” said the 40-year music industry veteran, who also composes and produces. Seeing Teatro ZinZanni’s “Love, Chaos and Dinner” changed his mind.

“The artistry was phenomenal,” he said, referring to the performers, “and the band could do anything.”

A few weeks later he was hired.

Contortionist Elayne Kramer is one of the circus artists who performs during Teatro ZinZanni's “Love, Chaos and Dinner.” Courtesy of Elliot Fisher

“Since I’ve been in this show, I feel like I truly won the lottery,” says Negus, who plays saxophone, woodwinds and keyboard. “It’s been a pleasure.”

The New Jersey native discovered his passion for music playing the recorder in grade school. He picked up the clarinet, then the saxophone, which became his primary instrument. He started playing professionally at 12, and over the years learned piano, percussion and arranging.

Acrobats Micky and Vlada perform during Teatro ZinZanni's cabaret/cirque hybrid “Love, Chaos and Dinner.” Courtesy of Elliot Fisher

In middle and high school, he participated in band, choir and theater, where he helped design sets and lights, adding, “I was immersed in all of it.”

With his parents’ support, he studied music at the University of Miami. They had one condition: That he earn a degree. He didn’t. At 20, he left college to take a job as an assistant to his former college instructor — award-winning composer/arranger/producer/conductor Gary Fry — at a jingle production company in Chicago.

A ready-made job in the music business earned his parents’ blessing, and Negus arrived in Chicago in 1981 during what he described as the waning days of jingle-writing’s golden age. That was before the synthesizers and musical instrument digital interface (MIDI), he said, when musicians played live together.

“From day to day I didn’t know what I’d be working on,” he said. One day it would be a jingle for McDonald’s Shamrock Shake, the next day it would be a jazz or pop tune.

“I played with the greatest musicians in the city — Chicago Symphony Orchestra members, jazz players — I learned from all these people,” Negus said.

The experience was as invaluable as the connections he made. Once, an acquaintance informed him Gladys Knight was looking for a saxophonist for some Chicago performances.

“No,” Negus told him, “I can’t do that.”

Then his wife intervened.

“Call him back,” she said. He did and got the job. He subsequently played with Knight several times, including on former radio personality Tom Joyner’s show when he and some colleagues sang backup for her on “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

After leaving the production company in 1988, he began freelancing for studio and concert gigs.

“Live performance was what I enjoyed,” said Negus, who has accompanied Celine Dion, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, comedians Denis Leary and Joan Rivers, The Temptations, Dennis DeYoung and Styx, among others.

In addition to playing on hundreds of TV and radio commercials, Negus has served as a composer and producer, producing more than 700 music tracks for preschool music program Kindermusik, and served as music director for podcaster and former radio personality Steve Dahl. And he’s done it all from his home base in Chicago, leaving only rarely and usually for never more than a night.

For all that, Negus says his most rewarding moment on stage came while playing for a Barbra Streisand impressionist. When she sang a song unfamiliar to the pianist, Negus accompanied her on sax.

“It was like magic,” he said. “It became a perfect musical thing … I could hear what she was doing and the sax started to bloom into this beautiful counter melody.”

Later, a bandmate told him, “You are the kind of musician I always aspired to be.”

Negus says it was the greatest compliment he ever received.

• • •

Teatro ZinZanni “Love, Chaos and Dinner”

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 6 p.m. Sundays; noon matinees on select Thursdays and Sundays

Where: Spiegeltent ZaZou in the Cambria Hotel, 32 W. Randolph St., Chicago

Tickets: Starting at $99. (312) 488-0900 or

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