When the highly anticipated 46th Jazzaffair opened its three-day run on Friday, April 12, organizers, more than 800 badge holders, and everyone else in Three Rivers held their collective breath. Billed as the last hurrah of the High Sierra Jazz Band, many folks were wondering if there would even be another Jazzaffair without its host band.
The usually festive weekend began with the even more tragic news that Earl McKee, charter member of HSJB and lifetime resident of Three Rivers, who had planned to join the band for Sunday’s grand finale, had died on the eve of Jazzaffair. Family, friends, and fans wondered how High Sierra could possibly play their high-spirited music with such heavy hearts.
But like the true professionals and dedicated musicians that have characterized this iconic jazz band for 42 years, the show did indeed go on, and the boys in the band opened Friday with two rousing sets that dispelled all doubts. High Sierra would dedicate their finale weekend to Earl, which is exactly what Earl would have told them to do.
Earl McKee and his jazz legacy was on the minds of all the Jazzaffair musicians including several who had known High Sierra since its debut performance at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee 42 years ago.
Bob Draga, renowned clarinet player who sits in with all the Jazzaffair regulars, said he first met Earl and High Sierra at the San Diego Jazz Festival in 1983.
“When I’m not playing [during this Jazzaffair], I’m thinking about Earl and all the routines we used to pull,” Draga recalled. “Earl and I spent years playing tricks on each other.”
“I think people buck up… you look at the age of the group at the festival and when your time comes, it comes,” Draga said. “In the meantime, let’s have a rockin’ good time and enjoy life.”
Howard Miyata, High Sierra’s trombone player for the past 30 years was with Earl at the time of his passing.
“I held his hand for awhile,” he said. “I don’t know if could hear me or not but I told him thanks for everything — for teaching me what jazz is all about and how to treat other people kindly. That’s what makes the music work even better and makes other people happy. Earl taught me that more than anybody.”
Tom Rigney, front man and fiddle player with his band Flambeau, has played Jazzaffair 11 consecutive years and hopes to be back for many more. Rigney was added to the Jazzaffair lineup to attract a younger and more diverse audience. (See Tom Rigney interview, parts one and two above.)
“Earl was actually a fiddle player in addition to being a great singer and tuba player, and he started coming to our sets,” Rigney recalled. “He knew some of the old songs I sang and he loved this band. Just his presence in the room gave credibility to somebody like me coming in from outside this [trad jazz] scene. If Earl signed off on you, then people knew they better check this out.”
Not to be lost in reminiscing about Earl was the fact that this Jazzaffair was a celebration of the final performances of the High Sierra Jazz Band.
“High Sierra may be wrapping it up this weekend but hopefully it will give birth to a new group: the Sierra Seven,” Miyata said. “We’ll be premiering at the Hot Jazz Jubilee during Labor Day weekend in Sacramento. We’ll put up the flag and see if anyone salutes and see if we can keep this music going.”