Jean Cunningham, who died on
Jean Cunningham, who died on Aug. 23, 2015

Jean Cunningham /May 5, 1928 – August 23, 2015

Jean Zeiger Cunningham, 87, of Oakland, CA, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, August 23, 2015. Friend, traveler, sister, musician, mother, grandmother, chemist, wife, music librarian, teacher were among the many roles Jean fulfilled with skill, humor, clarity and love.

Jean was born in Cincinnati, OH. She graduated from Walnut Hills High School and Barnard College in NYC with a degree in chemistry.

After a stint with Procter & Gamble after college, Jean moved to Berkeley to earn a master’s in musicology at Cal and realized upon arriving in Berkeley that she had found her true home.

Jean received a Hertz fellowship to study flute in Vienna, Austria, for a year, where she was the lone woman performing professionally in Vienna at a time when only men were professional musicians.

A flutist with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra until 1986, Jean also played with the Golden Gate Park Band, Woodminster summer musical theater, SF Opera and SF Ballet orchestras (some years playing as many as 27 performances of The Nutcracker), and as a solo performer or in an ensemble at weddings, private parties, and even a cruise.

Jean was a sought-after teacher, giving private lessons and teaching at Holy Names and Mills colleges. While still performing with the Oakland Symphony, Jean became the orchestra’s music librarian, which started her down the vocational and avocational path she followed for the rest of her life. After she retired from performing, Jean focused her attention on building the Paramount Theatre Library of Popular Music, one of the largest libraries of popular and light-classical music in the country.

As important as music was to Jean, it was not her only note — she lived many melodies and harmonies in her life.

Jean had a lively interest in science, volunteering several times with EarthWatch in the U.S. and abroad on archeological digs and botanical studies, and as evidenced in gifts to her grandchildren, such as a book about birds listening to Bach, which her grandson says he hadn’t realized he wanted, but “somehow she did.”

Jean valued nature, the outdoors, and the environment. Jean and her husband, Richard Cunningham (dec. 1971), spent their honeymoon as summer fire lookouts in the Windy Mountains of Wyoming, Jean was a member of the Nature Conservancy and an active member of the Sierra Club for many years.

She valued her membership at the Hills Swim & Tennis Club, where she swam regularly until the end of 2014.

She loved travel and history and often combined the two. She traveled extensively in the U.S., and to England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and the Upper Amazon, often reading and researching beforehand about the places she would be visiting.

Jean eventually came full circle, back to chemistry, joining her son Nils in establishing a small cabernet vineyard and learning about grape culture and winemaking.

Although Jean was faced with serious health issues in 2015, she continued to be upbeat and optimistic about her recovery. She viewed her situation with the same dry humor she’d applied to everything in life, the humor that made her full of surprises and interesting quirks, and led to choosing gifts for family like a calendar themed around outhouses.

Her family wishes to thank Jean’s friends and colleagues for their many visits and letters, which were a tremendous source of comfort to her during this time.

She is survived by her three children, Lars (Greta), Nils (Lisa), Carla Cunningham Scherr (Stephen), grandchildren Martin and Ruth Scherr, and cousins Marjorie and Irene Newmark.

A memorial service will be held at 1:00 p.m. on Nov. 7, 2015, at Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, CA. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Paramount Theatre Music Library, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612.

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no charge, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to

Avatar photo

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...