Peter Petty (and his Terpsichoreans!)

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Petty promise

Published 03.29.18

My first encounters with Peter Petty were from a distance. At last year’s SAMMIES awards show, he performed a high-energy staple from swing history, “The Man from Harlem,” his black tux fronting a gang of white suits armed with saxophones, trumpets, violins and a double-bass. Petty matched the big sound with a bigger voice and stage presence, flailing his baton and comb-over as he told the story about a charismatic dancer from Upper Manhattan. I saw him again outside Ace of Spades at the end of the night. He took that same stage character with him in his walk, sauntering down R Street like a prohibition-era made man.

Was Peter Petty an act? Recently, I got a chance to ask him up close.

A court reporter by day and band leader by night, Petty is turning a new page as a local front man. In September last year, he released his debut album, Ready, Petty, GO!, a 16-track swing jazz romp of 11 covers and five originals recorded with his band the Terpsichoreans (it means “dancers”). Turning 50 this year, Peter Petty, which is his real name, is hoping to break out of the city.

“I’m trying to spread my wings and fly,” Petty said.

And it’s a long time coming. Petty sang with the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera for eight years and fronted the Harley White Jr. Orchestra for five. On top of the jazz and opera gigs, he was an aspiring actor ever since high school—he starred in a 1993 feature film, Jump Cut. He even has an appreciation for epic, anthemic rock: Every year, he hosts a Jesus Christ Superstar party in his backyard.

The rhythms and cadences of my speech, people always ask, ‘Where are you from?’ Well, South Sacramento.

—Peter Petty, swing-jazz band leader

Petty inhabits a mash of genres that he coins “hep-hop-era.” Think swing (or “hep”) and opera (“era”) with a hip-hop attitude.

 “Because back in the day, swing music, especially in the beginnings of jazz, when it was still African-American—before it was co-opted by my people—it was dangerous,” Petty said. “It was like the hip-hop of its day, essentially. Parents did not want their kids going to no jazz clubs or swing clubs, because they’d come home high or drunk or pregnant, maybe all three.”

A self-proclaimed “Tasmanian Devil in a tuxedo,” Petty sings, dances and chatters with the audience as a sweating caricature of a 1920s big band leader. He says his theatrical and musical shows satisfy many of the desires he has to express himself. 

“And really, it’s pretty vainglorious,” Petty said. “Especially in some songs, really emotional ballads ... And I apologize to the crowd, too. ‘Thank you for allowing me that criminal act of self-indulgence, man. But it’s not like people hate it, so that’s a good thing, too.”

But where does the show end and the real Petty begin? I asked about that night at the SAMMIES. He said his demeanor isn’t an act. Well, sort of.

“It’s something that developed in me, so at this point in my life, this seems to be who I am,” Petty said. “So the rhythms and cadences of my speech, people always ask, ‘Where are you from?’ Well, South Sacramento. It’s just me. It’s what I can do. It’s what I do.”

Q & A

How do you describe your music to people?

That, indeed, is a tough one. I’m so all over the place that I had to coin my own category to describe the musical chimera that I practice; I call it Hep-Hop-era. A good friend calls it “if Frank Sinatra was on acid,” and that is a pretty accurate nutshell description. Gives people the general idea anyway.

Name a pet peeve.

People saying “enamored with” instead of “enamored of.” You don’t say you’re afraid “with” something, do you? No, you do not. Same kind of thing.

Name a recent personal food trend.

One word: watercress.

What artist or band are you a little embarrassed to love, and why?

It’s funny, there are so many that I probably should feel embarrassed about, but I think it’s going to have to be Michael Franks. Whenever I have a chance to put on one of my old Michael Franks albums from the late 1970s and early 1980s, I STILL love it, just so much, but the whole time I am laughing out loud at how embarrassingly sexualized his lyrics are. He was an absolute master (bater) of sexual double entendre, genital euphemism and erotic metaphor. Just an absolute product of his time; too funny, but still SO great!

What did you want to be when you were 7?

Wow, I do remember that I actually did feel a few vocational callings at that age. I really have to search my memory banks on that one, but as I recall, it was a deep sea diver and a garbage man. I cannot, however, remember the impetus underlying those ambitions.

What drives you to keep playing even though the music industry can be so harsh?

Well, it certainly is getting harder to believe the delusion, but really, I have left myself no other viable options for making any kind of a living outside of music performance. I truly do love it, and it is the only medium in which I have found any kind of consistent success. It quite simply is what I can do.

What was the first song you learned to play?

The first song I learned to play, truly, was one that I wrote myself (I wasn’t good enough to play any other songs!). I wrote it on my brother’s guitar for my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day (because I couldn’t afford to buy her anything) when I was 15. I provocatively titled it “Valentine on My Mind.” I couldn’t believe she actually liked it, and neither could she! Understandably, she was expecting the worst. (It was pretty god-awful, though.)

What's a big musical inspiration that would most surprise your fans?

Billy Joel might do it. HUUUGE influence, whether I like it or not. Of course, I limit his inspiration to his albums Piano Man through Uptown Girl. He lost me on The Bridge and thereafter.

What's something most of your friends don't know about you?

That I can burrow through an elephant.

What's your favorite local artist/group (other than yourself, smartypants)?

For groovy listening, Current Personae, all the way. But for sheer freakish spectacle, Step Jayne!

Who is your secret star crush?

I am in love with Amy Grant. There, I said it.

You're given a magic wand. What do you do with it?

Likely, whatever the kindly magician asks me to do so xe can complete xyr's illusion. Then, unless xe has invited me to keep it, I give it back to xem.

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