Gail Pettis can't explain the difference between Lydian and Dorian scales, but that doesn't concern the 58-year-old jazz singer one bit. Because when Pettis saunters up to a microphone and unleashes her rich alto on a Nat King Cole classic, technicalities are the last thing on her mind. "Jazz is about expressing what's inside you in a real way,"she says. "When I sing, I feel like I'm doing what I was born to do. It's how I imagine flying would feel."
Twenty years ago, Pettis was an orthodontist who had just opened her own practice in Seattle. "my mom was a nurse and my dad was an anesthesiologist," says the Harvard-trained doctor. "The question wasn't if I'd be involved in medicine, but which branch I'd pursue." To tap into her creative side, she kept up with a variety of hobbies. For years, the favorite was swing dancing, but when a knee injury hobbled her in 2001, she signed up on a whim for a jazz performance workshop. "I was the only adult in a class full of middle and high schoolers," she says. "I was completely lost - I hadn't taken a music course since 1976!" When it ended, though, her teacher encouraged her to join weekly jam sessions with his band. "I didn't know music theory or terminology," she says. "But my instructor told me that before there were words to describe music, there was music itself. That's when the bug bit."
Pettis mustered up the courage to sell her practice in 2006. Since then, the captivating chanteuse has released two albums and booked shows in venues both humble (the dining room of an assisted-living facility) and stately (in front of a crowd of 2,000 at last year's White Nights Swing festival in St. Petersburg, Russia). And while she admires legends like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, she doesn't want to simply echo their sound. "I never cover something lick for lick," she says. "The last thing I'd want to be is someone you've heard before. I'm out there to make the songs my own."