OAKHURST — A summertime mountain community tradition — live jazz on the outdoor patio at the Pizza Factory — is set to swing back into action next week. “Our community needs the uplift soooo much right now,” says Berl Howell, one of the leaders of the iconic Yosemite Jazz Band, which will perform for the first time since the pandemic began on Thursday night (June 11) at Oakhurst’s Pizza Factory.
Given the ongoing issues with COVID-19, Howell said the band will resume performing every Thursday night on the restaurant’s patio. “We will be keeping our distance,” he says. “And if you’re not feeling well, you will need to miss a night and stay home.”
The Yosemite Jazz Band — a favorite for generations of mountain area music lovers — has been tooting their horns every summer at the Pizza Factory since the early 1990s. But twenty-six years ago, when the band first began playing on the restaurant’s patio, Howell and his buddies Ted Strauss and Jimmie Kirin had no idea their informal Thursday night gigs would become an Oakhurst tradition.
“Back then, we just enjoyed getting together and practicing our music in public,” Howell says. “They used to pay us with a free pizza and pitcher of beer.”
The Yosemite Jazz Band actually formed in 1993 when trumpet player Howell approached fellow local musicians Strauss (clarinet, sax) and Kirin (drums) and suggested the trio form a Dixieland jazz band. Howell, who is 75, had just moved to the Yosemite area from southern California.
“I ran an auto and air conditioning shop for 25 years in Ventura and this guy I knew there had a band that played Dixieland,” he remembers, “The music just spoke to me. It was so upbeat. So after I came to North Fork, I decided to find some guys and start a band here.”
“We started playing at The Pizza Factory in 1994,” Howell says. “At first, we called ourselves the Yosemite Dixieland Jazz Band. But after recruiting some more members and branching into other kinds of jazz, we shortened the name to Yosemite Jazz Band.”
“None of us take ourselves too seriously,” Howell adds. “We just enjoy playing this kind of music and putting a smile on people’s faces.”
And in this new era of COVID-19, Howell said making people relax and smile is even more important.
The roster of past and present Yosemite Jazz Band members reads like a Who’s Who of local musicians: Jeff Gurule (banjo and guitar), George and Maggie Izett (trombone and clarinet), George Smith (banjo), Loren Callan (tuba), Betty Callan (tambourine), Gary Smalz (keyboard), Larry Vaccaro (tuba), David Quinday (bass), Amy Duke (vocals) and Ken Wood (drums).
And when she’s “not too busy,” Howell says, local actress and singer Jennifer Janine also performs with the band.
Until the COVID pandemic slowed their roll, the band had been averaging about 25 shows a year. They’ve performed at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles and before a crowd of more than 1,500 at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.
Besides their standing June-October Thursday night gigs at The Pizza Factory, the band also has performed regularly at the Golden Chain Theater and The Pines Resort at Bass Lake as well as at area schools and for local service clubs and churches.
Through the years, the group also has cut a handful of CDs with titles like “Will Play for Food” and “Ain’t Got a Lousy Dime.”
“After all these years, we’re still doing it for the love of the music,” says Howell. “We’d be playing Thursday nights (at the Pizza Factory) even if they were still just paying us with a pizza.”
The Pizza Factory is located at 40120 Highway 41 in Oakhurst.