Around five o’clock on Sunday, April 14, 2019, in the Three Rivers Lions Arena in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, when Earl McKee sings “We’ll Meet Again,” the song that has concluded the final set of so many of their appearances over the past four decades, the High Sierra Jazz Band will bring to a close 42 years of performing as one of the country’s top traditional jazz bands.
And in all probability, there won’t be a dry eye in the hall.
The band made its first appearance at the annual Jazzaffair in 1976 and decided that’s where it all should come to an end. Their retirement announcement stated, “Even though the band sounds as good as ever, we have decided to disband while we still perform at our peak. It is clear that advancing age and associated aches and pains are making it more difficult to continue the hectic pace of travel to and from festivals, concerts, and cruises.”
“Not only have we been regulars at all the traditional jazz festivals in the United States and Canada, we have enjoyed numerous tours of Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand and had the pleasure of performing on numerous jazz cruises around the world.”
Asked for highlights, Stan Huddleston, the band’s historian, recalled “appearing on the main stage of the Sydney Opera House as well as in a wool shed in the Australia Outback, cruising the Sea of Japan and playing for upwards of 8,000 Japanese in a three-day concert period; 12 trips to Europe, 42 ocean/river cruises, and performing in such unique venues as the back of a lorry in Edinburgh, Scotland, a livery stable in the Rockies, and a sail boat on Folsom Lake, California. We’ve recorded 25 albums on LPs, cassette tapes, and CDs and entertained many dignitaries, including then-California governor Ronald Reagan.”
These jazz ambassadors single-handedly put Three Rivers, a rural community with slightly over two thousand residents at the gateway to Sequoia National Park, on the world map. Three of the members—Earl McKee, Charlie Castro and Bruce Huddleston—were in Three River’s original jazz band, Celebrated Jazzberry Jam that Leuder Ohlwein organized in 1970. That band was reorganized in 1976 as the High Sierra Jazz Band and operated as a six-piece ensemble for the next 22 years.
Earl McKee’s wife Gaynor provides a bit of insight as to how the band initially started. “If my cousin Terri had never taken that trip to Ireland in 1967, there never would have been jazz in Three Rivers or a Jazzaffair. It was in Dublin that she met (and later married) German-born Lueder Ohlwein, who played the banjo and kazoo and sang.” When the couple arrived in Three Rivers in 1969, Lueder promoted the idea that a jazz club was vital to a community if the music was to survive.
Billed “as intoxicating as Prohibition itself,” the newly-formed Jazzberry Jam gigged around the local area, which led to the first music festival in Three Rivers in 1974. Gaynor McKee continues, “The High Sierra Jazz Band was formed because Lueder wanted to return to Europe and tour with the band. But the local guys all had jobs and couldn’t just drop everything to go.”
So in 1976, cornetist Al Smith became the leader, Vic Kimzey was on trombone, and Stan Huddleston replaced Ohlwein on banjo, joining his brother, pianist Bruce Huddleston, drummer Charlie Castro and Earl McKee—he of the black cowboy hat and sousaphone—from the remnants of Jazzberry Jam. When Kimzey retired in 1989, he was replaced by Howard Miyata. Al Smith left the band in 1998, with Pieter Meijers (reeds) taking over as leader, and Bryan Shaw and Cory Gemme filled in on trumpet. Marc Caparone signed on as lead trumpet in 2013.
The current players have all held full-time jobs over the years. Pieter Meijers, who has a doctorate in nuclear chemistry and physics, is Senior Conservation Scientist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Howard Miyata, who is also an accomplished tuba player, is a junior high school band teacher. Marc Caparone is involved in a family winery in Paso Robles, California that specializes in rich, complex red wines.
Of the four charter members, Bruce Huddleston, who plays the organ, composes, and does arrangements, is a piano teacher and tuner as well as having been a printer. Brother Stan, whose first instrument was a violin, does social work with children. Charlie Castro is a Palute Indian who is retired from the National Park Service where he took care of the “big trees”—the Sequoia Gigantia. Earl McKee is a livestock rancher who raises cattle and quarter horses on the family 8,000-acre ranch in Three Rivers. His signature cowboy hat is not a prop when performing, but a standard part of his daily wear. He and his wife Gaynor have co-authored two books, the most recent of which has been described as “the most comprehensive work ever produced documenting the people, place and events of Three Rivers and Kaweah Country.”
Earl McKee has been dealing with some health issues of late, so is not hoisting his sousaphone during performances anymore. On his recommendation, Paul Hagglund of Seattle has been hired to fill in for Earl at the band’s remaining engagements, although Earl contributes his unique, heartfelt vocals whenever he is in attendance.
The HSJB website cites the band’s style as “exciting, hard-driving, two-beat traditional jazz, often referred to as ‘West Coast revival,’ featuring tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Lil Hardin, Lu Watters, and Turk Murphy. Their strength lies in a bold and solid rhythm section, superb musicianship, vocals by Earl McKee and Howard Miyata, enthusiastic presentation, and an extensive and varied repertoire that generates audience excitement.”
Perhaps the late K.O. Eckland said it best when he wrote the liner notes for the band’s 10th recording in 1986—an LP no less. K.O., who tickled the ivories for such august groups as the Firehouse 5 + 2 and the Desolation Jazz Ensemble + Mess Kit Repair Battalion, authored two compendiums of West Coast jazz organizations, bands, and musicians, so had more than a casual view of the bands that were performing on the festival circuit back in the 1980s.
With slight editing, K.O. wrote: “The lineup remains the same after 10 years, which says something about the chemistry within the group. Most other bands have a personnel turnover equaled only by a Kamikaze squadron. The six members are truly entertainers. Pure energy pours off the stage and soaks the audience, for there is evangelistic fervor to everything the HSJB does.”
“Converts are a dime a dozen. They could sell dress shirts with frayed collars, and they’d be sold out in minutes. First-timers may wonder what all the fuss is about. The only solution is to buy a ticket, sit down, and watch. Only don’t just watch the stage. Look around.”
“So what then is this magic, this chemistry? Canvass 100 followers, and you’ll come up with 100 explanations, all of them valid. The most obvious is the entertainment factor, but close behind is a feeling of family. They’re an easy bunch to get to know. We know Lillian and her cow bell. We know which wife is Marge Kimzey, and what kind of beer Charlie Castro likes. We are all privy to the little inside stuff.”
“Wherever they perform, it’s really Al Smith’s or Earl McKee’s living room, and it’s ‘Hey, put your feet up on the table. We’re gonna play a few tunes for you . . . Hope you like ’em.’”
We sure have! You guys will be missed, but thanks for all the pleasure and good times you have brought us over the past 42 years.
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