Catching up with High Sierra Jazz Band


It hardly seems possible. A jazz festival that has played each April for 43 years and is alive and well and better than ever. Ask any local in the audience or Sierra Traditional Jazz Club member, and they won’t hesitate to tell you that Jazzaffair is their favorite time of the year.

In the years following 2000, the fate of the local festival was debated each April with many folks wondering if there would even be a Jazzaffair the next year. And though High Sierra made a smooth transition following the Al Smith era (1976-1997), it was unthinkable that Jazzaffair and the High Sierra Jazz Band could both last another decade.

Yet it’s 2016 and the boys in the band play on, doing what they always have done — performing and recording some of the finest jazz on the West Coast or anywhere. 

Admission specials for 2016— Sierra Traditional Jazz Club is committed to introducing youngsters to jazz and equally committed to showing Three Rivers what jazz is all about. 

That’s why this year, kids under 12 will be admitted to Jazzaffair for free. Youth 12 to 17 will receive half-price admission. 

And all a Three Rivers resident has to do is flash an ID and they get a one-day pass for just $10. And that ten bucks provides access to four venues, 11 bands, and up to 12 hours of live, foot-stomping music.

In memoriam— Sue Mills was Jazzaffair director from 1983 to 1989 and again from 1994 to 2000. She was manager of High Sierra Jazz Band from 1983 to 2000.

On November 7, 2015, at the age of 73, Sue passed away from cancer at her Three Rivers home of 40 years that was within earshot of the Lions Arena stage. 

Farewell to other jazz friends— Stoney Savage (1941-June 2015) of Visalia was vice president of Sierra Traditional Jazz Club, editor of the Jazzomania newsletter, and was a fixture for many years on the badge table at Lions Arena.

Chan Wilcox (1942-October 2015) of Three Rivers was a longtime Sierra Traditional Jazz Club member and former club treasurer.

Award-winning musician— High Sierra has received a lot of accolades over the years and often wins prestigious awards. At the 36th annual Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey in March, Earl McKee was singled out as Musician of the Year 2016.

Earl was quoted as saying his claim to fame is “Playing his Silver Commode for the past 43 years.” 

But Earl brings so much more to HSJB than playing the sousaphone. Gaynor, his wife of 65 years, says Earl’s rich, vibrant singing voice still causes her heart to flutter just like it did when they were sweethearts at Woodlake High School.

New recording— After 23 albums and hundreds of jazz festivals played around the world, what could be possibly left to do? 

“We’ve got a new album,” said Stan Huddleston, banjo player, who with brother Bruce, piano; Charlie Castro, drums; and Earl McKee, sousaphone; are original members who have been in HSJB  since 1976. “Number 24 is in the works, and many of the tunes from that CD will be played during Jazzaffair weekend.” 

Stan reported that Pieter chose the cuts for the upcoming album, and they are all new songs for HSJB. 

“There are Western numbers for Earl to sing and yodel and some classic jazz tunes too,” Stan said. “They are all old-timey tunes.”

Stan said the band has had the album in the works for more than two years. While the four original members of High Sierra all reside in Three Rivers, the other three are scattered around California.

“It’s so hard to get us all together to practice because we are so spread out,” he said. “Pieter is in Los Angeles, Howard [Miyata] is in Gilroy, and Marc [Caperone] is on the Central Coast.”

On tour— At least three times a year, HSJB travels the globe with Jazzdagen Tours. In 2015, extended cruise excursions included Hawaii, Alaska, and the Caribbean. Next up in June is the Columbia River aboard the lavish paddle wheeler American Empress. The annual New Year’s cruise with Tom Rigney and Flambeau will be plying the Mexican Riviera to ring in 2017.  

The Club connection— As the host band, High Sierra has evolved and so has the Sierra Traditional Jazz Club. Founded by Chet and Thelma Crain in the 1970s to promote local jazz and host the annual festival, High Sierra Jazz Band or Jazzaffair could not have enjoyed the success it has without the support of the club. 

Chet Crain was the first manager of HSJB and the local jazz club’s first president. Chet’s son, Rusty, managed High Sierra for 15 years, finally slowing down and stepping aside from managing the band in 2015. 

This year, Rusty Crain is co-director of Jazzaffair with Stan Johnson of Three Rivers, who is also vice president of Sierra Traditional Jazz Club.

Here’s the 2016 lineup— The appeal for these musicians to play Jazzaffair is evident from where these bands and their members call home: Au Brothers Jazz Band (Sacramento and New York); Blue Street Jazz (Fresno and New Orleans); Cornet Chop Suey (St. Louis); Grand Dominion Jazz Band (Pacific Northwest); The High Street Band (Corvallis, Ore., and Boise, Idaho); Night Blooming Jazzmen (Claremont, Calif.); Titan Hot Seven (Nashville, Tenn., and  Oceanside, California); and Tom Rigney and Flambeau (San Francisco Bay Area). 

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