One evening in October 2001, Gail Pettis walked into a music studio in Seattle to begin an eight-month jazz workshop taught by a popular local saxophonist. At 43, Pettis stuck out in the crowd of teenagers, all middle and high school music students. She was there to find creative release from her busy career as an orthodontist, but she soon discovered that the kids knew more about music theory than she did. Pettis couldn’t tell a minor diminished seventh from a major triad, but she did know scales and notation from singing at church when she was younger and playing the French horn in her high school band. She also knew how to sing what she felt, and yearned for a chance to do just that. She was committed to making a midlife career change.
Growing up, Pettis was steeped in music. Her dad often played jazz records from his vinyl collection. Her grandmother was a pianist, and her grandfather, she later discovered, was a professional blues singer. Pettis developed an easy feel for jazz.
“Don’t be intimidated by musical terms,” she recalls her workshop teacher saying. “The things you’re doing organically are legit. To sing from your soul is the most important thing.”
Starting the Change
By day she straightened teeth, fit retainers and ran her business, and by night she sang at home, a cappella or to the accompaniment of backup tapes. In May 2002, just before the jazz workshop ended, her diligent practice started to pay off. Impressed by her velvety voice and three-and-a-half-octave range, Pettis’s teacher invited her to jam with his five-member band. For the next two years, she sang with them weekly. She wasn’t paid, but the shows were “like a big party,” she says, and they nurtured her talent and confidence. Meanwhile, she took more classes, attended more workshops and studied standards from the Great American Songbook.
Still, she was increasingly unhappy with her orthodontics work. “I loved the clinical part of practicing dentistry, but running a business was stressful,” she says. “I was socialized to please people. I made some poor management decisions and then got stuck. My staff and patients were running the practice, not me.” She was also struggling with chronic pain from an old knee injury. Many mornings she’d be in tears, sitting outside her office in the vintage Mercedes she’d inherited from her dad. She could hardly walk from the parking lot to her desk.
Music was Pettis’s creative outlet, and in 2004 she landed her first paid gig: A friend invited her to sing at the assisted-living center he directed. She wore a flattering black pencil skirt for the concert (it became her signature look for subsequent performances) and assembled just enough songs in her repertoire to last an hour. The fee was small—a few hundred dollars, which Pettis shared with her pianist and bassist—but she loved being paid to perform.
Determined to get more paying engagements, Pettis decided to make a demo. Her piano player had just built a recording studio in his basement, a tiny space that had great acoustics. One of the songs on her demo was “May I Come In?,” about a regretful lover begging for a second chance. The piece spoke to her heart: Professionally, she, too, was asking for another chance. When the CDs were ready, she stuck little paper labels on them and hand delivered them to restaurants all over Seattle.
One owner liked what he heard, and in 2005 he hired her. For a year, she and her backup pianist and bassist played at the Italian restaurant from 5 to 7 pm every Sunday for a few hundred dollars. They didn’t mind that forks and knives clinked—it was all part of the scene. She started building a clientele and getting more work, mostly weddings and corporate events.
The Final Push
Finally, in 2006, business burnout and unrelenting knee pain pushed Pettis to sell her dental practice. With her savings as a cushion, she focused her energies on making a living from her singing. She signed with an independent record label, Origin, and released two CDs: May I Come In? in 2007 and Here in the Moment in 2010. Seattle’s Earshot Jazz magazine named her 2007 Northwest Vocalist of the Year in its Golden Ear Awards. Her music began to be played on radio stations across the U.S. and abroad, generating royalties. Seattle music writer Andrew Gilbert noted her “natural gift for phrasing, musical intelligence and dogged work ethic, and simple good luck at living in an area with singer-friendly venues,” adding that she’s “the rare case of a performer coming into her own well into adulthood.”
Of course, it’s hard enough for a singer to earn a living when she begins a career in her youth. For a woman in her fifties, it’s almost unheard of. “I weathered the market crash of 2008–2009 with my nest egg,” she says. In 2011 she sold her house, moved into a small apartment and cut her monthly expenses from $8,000 to $3,000. For a few years, she had a part-time dentistry job at a medical clinic where she had no management responsibilities. Her knee pain no longer interferes with her activities. Today she still needs to supplement her income. But she has a regular gig at a Seattle hotel, where she can lose herself in the pleasure of seducing an audience with her sound. “I feel things deeply,” she says. “When I’m happy, I’m really joyful, and when I’m down, I’m seriously down. I try to convey that when I sing. The longer you live, the more you experience.”
Concert by concert, Pettis, who turned 56 this year, is fulfilling her dreams. A third CD is on the way. “My goal,” she says, “is to have a little home studio, do some voice-over and jingle work and also perform and tour. When I perform two or three times in a row, something builds, and I’m immersed in it. To perform every night—it becomes part of you in a Zen-like way.”