Longtime Berkeley resident Earl Scheelar (born July 9, 1929) — bandleader, clarinetist and cornet player — died peacefully on July 28. Few have shown greater dedication for keeping Classic Jazz alive in Northern California. Yet he never received full recognition for nearly six decades of musical leadership.
An exceptional jazz cornet player, Earl stood out for expression, eloquence and a distinctive personal style. Imitating no one, his forthright tone was passionate and deeply steeped in the Blues. Likewise, his robust clarinet parts were saturated in the Blues, offering a New Orleans-style counterpoint in the Johnny Dodds manner. He also played banjo, soprano and alto saxophones, tuba, baritone horn, country fiddle and he sang.
Though never a full-time professional musician, Scheelar maintained a continuous series of Jazz ensembles for more than 50 years: Earl’s New Orleans House Jazz Band (1966-72), Funky New Orleans Jazz Band (1972-97) and Zenith Jazz Band (1980-2020). Zenith Parade Band (1989-2020) was heard often at Northern California jazz festivals and civic gatherings.
In the 1960s he hosted parties and jam sessions, performing at nightspots in Berkeley, Monkey Inn, The Albatross, LaVal’s and casuals with Dick Oxtot, Bob Mielke and Ray Skjelbred. In 1972 Scheelar produced his first album, The Funky New Orleans Jazz Band featuring clarinet player Bob Helm. It was the only contemporaneous recording ever issued by the otherwise historical Herwin Records label.
Scheelar created Earl’s New Orleans House, a restaurant and dance hall on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley serving Louisiana food and music, 1966-67. After six months, he handed management to a friend who made it a successful “electric rock” venue while Earl retained access for special events and recordings.
He was also a sideman in numerous Northern California ensembles: Stone Age (P.T. Stanton), Golden Age (Dick Oxtot), Monterey Bay Classic (Frank Goulette), Black Diamond (George Knoblauch), Silicon Gulch (Joe Bithell), Good Time Levee Stompers (Jerry Kaehele) and Mission Gold (John Soulis) jazz bands.
Earl consistently looked to New Orleans for inspiration, “I’ve always preferred the New Orleans style. That’s what real jazz is as far as I’m concerned.” Yet he often welcomed key players of the original Frisco Jazz revival into his ensembles: reed player Bob Helm and pianist Burt Bales.
Drawn to the city of New Orleans by its music, food and culture, Earl and his second wife Alice (nee McCleskey) bought an apartment building in the French Quarter (1989-2005). Refurbishing the garret studio, they stayed there several weeks each year, often joined by Bob Helm.
In New Orleans, Scheelar and Helm jammed with local musicians and sat-in at Jacques Gauthe’s popular Meridian Hotel gig. Earl initiated the New Orleans Jazz Educational Foundation distributing musical instruments to deserving youngsters.
Scheelar was also a skilled carpenter, craftsman, mechanic and ran successful Volkswagen repair shops and dealerships during the 1960s. He was resourceful, helpful, independent and intelligent, crafting his life and music with originality.
His numerous hobbies included restoring player pianos and vintage automobiles, mostly English Austins. He and wife Alice avidly donated to more than 300 charitable causes worldwide. A large volume of his music, photos and ephemera have been donated to the Stanford Libraries in the Dave Radlauer Jazz Collection.
Earl Scheelar is survived by an extended loving family, his daughter Althea (Alfie) Boulton of Colorado; Granddaughter Teah Syverson of Colorado; Daughter Prita Babrah of California; Granddaughter Simone Bounahed-Harb of California; Step-son Mark McCleskey of Los Alamos; Daughter-in-law Eva Birnbaum of New Mexico; Great-grandsons Francis Bounahed-Harb, George Bounahed-Harb and Christopher Bounahed-Harb.