There's one thing you need to know about Clearwater Jazz Holiday diehards: Nothing — absolutely nothing — comes between them and their jazz.
"I told my instructor that I didn't want to be late for Al Jarreau," said Carol Taylor, a student at the Ultimate Medical Academy in Clearwater. "He said, 'You can take the exam a little early.' "
"I'm self-employed," Seminole's Richard Cardone said. "I am the boss."
Not even invasive medical procedures.
"I had shoulder surgery about six weeks ago," said Matt Higgins, who has attended the last 27 Jazz Holidays. "We've taken all of our kids here from the very beginning. No way."
Fans like Higgins staked out their spots in line as early as noon Thursday — four hours before the gates opened on the first night of the 30th Clearwater Jazz Holiday.
"That's what you've got to do to get here first," Higgins said. "If I hadn't gotten here, Tim would've."
Tim is Tim Kelly.
Kelly is 42 and lives in St. Petersburg; Higgins is 53 and lives in Spring Hill. For years, the men have vied for the first spot in line.
"One day I get here," Higgins said. "Two days, he gets here. It's a back and forth."
Higgins called Kelly as he left his home at 11 a.m. Yes, they actually exchanged numbers one year.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"At Wal-Mart trying to get a straw hat," Kelly replied.
Every opening day, Kelly has bought a new straw hat.
"Well," Higgins said, "see if I can't beat you down there."
Higgins arrived at noon; Kelly a short time later. There was no jumping up and down. Theirs is a friendly competition, the men said.
"The travesty in this whole story should be that Wal-Marts in south St. Pete were out of straw hats," Kelly said. "That threw everything out of sync from there. The Earth was not the same."
They pitched their chairs and reminisced on years past until 5 minutes after 5 when the gates opened and an avalanche of jazz lovers scurried down the hill of Coachman Park for prime sitting and viewing spots.
Higgins and Kelly were at the head of the pack.
"The system is I take the lightest object to mark our land and they take all the heavy lumber," Kelly said.
"I can't run," Higgins said. "We all sit together anyway.
"Four days of friendship and jazz."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.