Home News Bay Area jazz world remembers beloved singer Gail Dobson

Bay Area jazz world remembers beloved singer Gail Dobson


On and off the bandstand, Gail Dobson had a gift for bringing people together.

An adventurous jazz vocalist, enthusiastic percussionist and inspiring educator, she was a creative presence on the Bay Area music scene for more than five decades. In the days following her death from natural causes April 17 at her home in San Francisco’s Richmond District an outpouring of memories and appreciations from colleagues and fans swept over social media. Dobson was 81.

“Gail was a pillar of the Bay Area musician community,” wrote Berkeley drummer and flutist Jeff Weinmann. “She impacted people across generations, ethnicities, genres, whatever; she was the real deal.”

The veteran sound engineer Lee Brenkman described Dobson as “the Den Mother for a large contingent of the Bay Area Jazz community.” It’s a nurturing role she took to naturally, starting with her kids with Smith Dobson, the brilliant Santa Cruz jazz pianist who died in a car crash in 2001.

Her youngest daughter, vocalist Sasha Dobson, has carved out a singular niche in New York City as a singer-songwriter steeped in jazz from birth. She last performed in the Bay Area in October as a featured vocalist with Kim Nalley in the national production “When You Wish Upon a Star — A Jazz Tribute to 100 Years of Disney.”

Gail’s son Smith Dobson V is a saxophonist and drummer who works around the Bay Area jazz scene. He’s turning his monthly gig at Keys Jazz Bistro into a celebration of his mother on Sunday June 2, when he’ll be joined by Sasha, who’s in town touring with Norah Jones.

He said that while Gail had been feeling under the weather for a few days before her death, she was “actively engaged with teaching. Kids or adults, they brought her equal measure of fulfillment.”

Gigs were harder to find, and her failing eyesight made navigating the city difficult. But since she moved from Brisbane to the Richmond, “she’d been incredibly independent, getting around riding the bus,” he said. “She always found ways, like doing teaching on Zoom during Covid.”

A San Francisco native, Dobson started performing at North Beach clubs such as the Purple Onion and Hungry i as a young musician when she married the veteran jazz pianist George Muribus. She met Smith Dobson when she was working at the Candy Store, but shortly afterward he joined the military and spent six years with The Airmen of Note, the premiere jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force.

By the time he returned to the Bay Area their marriages were both coming to an end. When Dobson asked her to join his new band their chemistry was evident on and off stage.

“I was getting a divorce, and Smith was getting a divorce,” Gail Dobson said in a 2007 interview with the Mercury News. “We fell in love playing music and four years later we were married. He helped me raise my two older kids, and we had two kids together.”

They led the house band at San Jose’s Garden City, collaborating with traveling jazz luminaries and nurturing many aspiring young musicians who came by to sit in at the end of the night. That’s how she first met saxophonist Mas Koga, who was a student at San Jose State in the 1990s when he came by Garden City.

In the years following Smith Dobson’s death Koga went on to perform with her for in a band featuring top players like guitarist Tim Volpicella and the late bassist John Shifflett. He was part of her group several years later as she pursued her fascination with Cuban music with pianist Patrick Morehead and drummer Josh Jones.

“She had an open mind and I really respected and admired that,” Koga said. “A lot of people as they get older are like, you’ve found your voice and have your thing. That’s great. But Gail was always curious. She really loved rhythm, which brought her to Brazilian music and Cuban music. She was wonderful.”

San Jose guitarist Scott Sorkin also played in Dobson’s band for several years in the mid-aughts. More than impressed by her musicianship, he respected her knack for “making things happen,” he said. “She created her own ecosystem and through Gail I got to work with a lot of people I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. She was really adventurous and free as a singer.”

It’s a creative mindset that she passed on to artists around her, including her children. “She had the courage to be experimental,” said Smith Dobson V. “I definitely get my experimental flair, her willingness to flat out try things, from my mom, not my dad. If it didn’t work, you move on and keep creating, keep smiling.”

Contact Andrew Gilbert at [email protected].


When: 5 and 7 p.m. June 2

Where: Keys Jazz Bistro, 498 Broadway, San Francisco

Tickets: $15; keysjazzbistro.com

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