Duke of Uke 

The world's oldest working ukulele jazzman stays up late, gets up early, and is looking for a date.

Old age is an island surrounded by death, but there's no ban on stocking the place with jazz, parties, travel, friends, and hundreds of adoring strangers.

Bill Tapia, 98-year-old jazz ukulele performer and former East Bay music instructor, lives on such an island. On Thursday, July 27, the Duke of Uke will pack Berkeley's Freight & Salvage for a third local performance since leaving behind a lifetime of guitar instruction in Lafayette. "I packed them in the first time we played there and I packed them in the second time as well," the Duke says. "We had to turn people away."

Crowds clamor for the 2005 Ukulele Hall of Fame inductee because of his sweet strumming and storytelling. Tapia has been playing the instrument since World War I, when he performed for servicemen in his native Hawaii. "When I was fourteen I worked in vaudeville and then stopped playing the uke professionally for 56 years because I took up guitar," he says. "I wanted to play in the big bands, but they didn't use the uke in big bands."

Tapia's early Hawaii period is rife with stories about teaching basic riffs to stars like Clark Gable and Shirley Temple, and sitting in with Louis Armstrong on cruise ships. Eventually he moved to the East Bay with his wife and daughter, who passed away at ages eighty and sixty respectively. Tapia moved to Southern California post-2000 to live with relatives and take advantage of an unexpected resurgence of the uke. "I don't know why the uke came back," Tapia says. "Everyone's gotten crazy for it again. My estimation is it's easy to pack around with you and it's a very nice instrument. You can solo on it or play accompaniment."

The boom has paid off for Tapia, who was rediscovered five years ago, and released his first solo record in 2004 at age 96. He followed up with another last year, and has a bid pending to make Guinness World Records as Oldest Performing Musician. He stands a good chance: the book lists only the oldest performing tuba player — who is just 94, and Tapia outtours him to boot. "I'm going up on the 24th and playing shows in Santa Cruz and Stanford before I go to Berkeley," he says. "Then I go to Seattle for a few days and play three concerts, and in August I'm going back to Hawaii to pick up my fourth uke from [instrument maker] Lay [Mann]."

And did he mention he's looking for a date? Maybe it's no coincidence that his musical backers are all women. There's drummer Akira Tana and bassist Ruth Davies, both of whom are renowned West Coast jazz musicians. He also mentions an "award-winning" vocalist named Mihana who is coming up from Hawaii. A diehard jazzman needs that onstage interaction, after all. "I play nothing but jazz, know what I mean?" he says. "Jazz tunes that jazz fans like and that I've liked all my life. I'm sorry to say that jazz is the only kind of music I really enjoy. I enjoy a little rock, but most of it is too loud and noisy."

So does the Duke show any signs of slowing?

"I want to do more albums," he says. "I want to do the things as long as I can until I can't do it anymore."

Tapia's eyes aren't what they used to be and he's recently stopped driving. Music is also harder to read, but "thank God I have a good ear," he says. "I can play things I never heard before. If you sing it once or twice, I can pick it up. I've always been like that."

As for vitality, just ask Mark Taylor, the Duke's publicist. "The hardest thing is convincing people he's a viable artist," he says. "He's toured up and down the West Coast, but the hardest place to book him is in his own backyard in Orange County. The last time we were in the Bay Area we got up at 8 a.m. before loading in, then at 1 p.m. we did a Borders in San Rafael, then took a rest and went to Berkeley to sound check, did the Berkeley show, and went to dinner until 1:40 a.m. Guess who's the first one up and raring to go at 8:30 a.m.? There's nobody like him.

"We kid him that he made some kind of deal with the devil because he just seems to be getting younger and the rest of us are getting older," Taylor continues. "He'll be playing when he's one hundred."

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