How did Three Rivers end up with an annual jazz festival? It's an epic story about Three Rivers and a musical odyssey. Born in New Orleans, it took an Irish twist and found an enduring legacy here in the southern Sierra Nevada.
"If my cousin, Terri, would never have taken that trip to Ireland in 1967, there never would have been jazz in Three Rivers or a Jazzaffair," said Gaynor McKee, wife of Earl McKee, a founding member of the host band formerly known as the Jazzberry Jam and now known world-wide as the High Sierra Jazz Band.
Gaynor and Earl McKee have been involved in the local music culture their entire lives and have been an integral part of the jazz odyssey from the very beginning. For Three Rivers, the great jazz tradition began when Terri Sullivan met Lueder Ohlwein, who was playing his musical trade in a Dublin pub.
Driven by his constant search for a traditional New Orleans sound, the German-born Lueder, who played banjo, kazoo, and vocals, frequented all the jazz haunts of Europe before landing in Dublin in 1962. There he was instrumental in the formation of the Dublin Jazz Society. When he and his new wife Terri arrived in Three Rivers in 1969, he was an experienced band leader, and his jazz repertoire included an extensive song list. He realized that a jazz club is vital to a community if the music is to thrive.
Informal gigs around Three Rivers by Leuder Ohlwein's Jazzberry Jam Band, billed "as intoxicating as Prohibition itself," evolved into the first local music festival in 1974. It wasn't officially called Jazzaffair until a few years later. When the Jam reorganized in 1977 as the High Sierra Jazz Band, the music festival was already an annual Three Rivers springtime ritual under the aegis of the Sierra Traditional Jazz Club.
"The High Sierra Jazz Band was formed because Lueder wanted to return to Europe and play his music over there," Gaynor recalled. "The local guys in the band had jobs here and they just couldn't drop everything and go."
The members of Jazzberry Jam that played on the group's one and only 1975 album, "Assorted Flavors," are Don Franscioni, trumpet; Vic Kimzey, trombone; Ed "Doc Ropes, sax; Bruce Huddleston, piano; Earl McKee, string bass, tuba, guitar; Charlie Castro, drums; and of course Lueder as the band's leader.
When the High Sierra Jazz Band formed in 1976, an energetic trumpet player named Al Smith, whom the Jam had heard at the Sacramento festival, replaced Franscioni upon his retirement and Bruce's banjo-playing brother, Stan Huddleston, also joined as an original member.
The newly reconstituted High Sierra, minus Lueder and Doc Ropes, released its debut album "Over the Top" in 1977. That year, George Brand, editor of the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, was among the first to recognize the High Sierra phenomenon when he wrote:
"Three Rivers, a hamlet in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is not a likely spot in which to find a Dixieland jazz group whose two-beat rhythm is as free-wheeling as a roller coaster on greased rails yet as precise as a mathematician's mind. But that's where you'll find the High Sierra Jazz Band in a fashion that compares favorably with jazz hall sounds in San Francisco, Chicago, or New Orleans."
For the next decade, High Sierra recorded dozens of traditional jazz tunes, many of which were New Orleans jazz standards remade in a unique West Coast style. The group's 12th release, "Diggin' a New Bone" in 1990, made the transition from vinyl and cassette tapes to compact disc, and both High Sierra and their annual Jazzaffair festival kept right on going.
When Vic Kimzey passed away in 1991, the current trombone player, Howard Miyata replaced him and High Sierra's distinctly West Coast sound continued to evolve as the group traveled the world as jazz ambassadors.
Al Smith retired from the band in 1998, replaced by Pieter Meijers (leader and reeds) and Bryan Shaw (trumpet). Cory Gemme filled in for Bryan during 2006 and 2007, but Shaw returned to the band in 2008 and long before, HIgh Sierra had become famous the world over for hot jazz with West Coast revivalist roots.
For almost 40 years now, through thick and thin, a dedicated group of tireless Three Rivers jazz club volunteers have parlayed the astonishing success of the High Sierra Jazz Band into an unforgettable festival in Three Rivers called Jazzaffair. Beginning with the Thursday evening LIONS Club Recognition Night/Western Barbeque Dinner which locals call "the Jazzaffair kick-off", capped by an energetic performance by host band High Sierra, Jazzaffair continues through the following Sunday with rousing jazz worship services at the Three Rivers Community Presbyterian Church, the Veterans Memorial Building, and the Three Rivers LIONS Roping Arena Pavilion. Once the worship services and other performances are over, High Sierra plays the Finale everyone is waiting for, from 3:15 to 4:15, at the LIONS Roping Arena Pavilion.
Each venue has food and beverages for purchase. For nearby lodging, shopping and restaurants, see http://www.threerivers.com/
No matter where you stay, you'll be sure to enjoy the wonderful people, fantastic music, and beautiful mountains, lake and river which constitute the Sierra Nevada foothill community of Three Rivers, the Gateway to Sequoia National Park. You will be back for more.