Oakland Magazine – December 2005
For a woman in her golden years, Jean Cunningham spends a lot of time in the attic. No, she’s not sorting through family heirlooms, or even cleaning house. The scope of her work is much bigger than that, as she strives to preserve a body of music that spans more than a century.
Jean is on a mission to save one of the largest collections of musical scores in the country. To do this, she must climb the old, narrow staircase to the top of the historic Paramount Theatre several times a week – where row after row of sheet music is cataloged and stored in a cool, dimly-lit room.
On the day I was there, a match was made. The drum and trumpet scores came in for an out of print piece and Jean carefully added them to a folder with parts for the flute, saxophone and other instruments. “I believe that makes a complete set,” she said, like a puzzle-master fitting in the final, critical piece.
It’s a project Jean has overseen since 1975, when she was a professional flutist for the Oakland Symphony and the orchestra’s music librarian. “Jack Bethards was the manager of the symphony,” she remembers, “and he was the prime mover behind the symphony buying the Paramount and saving it from the demolition ball.” She says Bethards donated a huge collection of pop music scores to the Paramount in the mid 1980’s and she was asked to catalog and maintain it. “The stars were just right,” Jean adds, saying the symphony was bankrupt and she was ready for retirement anyway. She just needed to tweak her tastes in music a tad. “I had a masters in musicology and I was a musical snob and here I was dealing with this pop stuff,” she laughs. “Now I love it.”
In her days with the Oakland Symphony, Jean played many of the songs that she’s now trying to save. Musical arrangements from as far back as 1850 that are still in demand today. In fact, the library gets calls from musicians worldwide who want to perform these pieces. “It’s mostly word of mouth,” Jean says. “We get requests from Canada and Europe, we even had one from Thailand.” It’s usually conductors looking for full sets of music that they can perform. “Big band music is the most in demand” she adds, tossing out household names like Miller and Dorsey and Ellington and Basie. Jean charges a handling fee, which allows her to receive a small stipend for her work. The Paramount provides the storage space and pays the electricity and the phone bills. But there’s not much more to it than that. “When real librarians come here, they just throw a fit,” Jean says, referring to the modest facilities. “We have some acid-free containers for original, one-of-a-kind scores, but if it were a real archival library it would be temperature and humidity controlled.”
And that’s the plea of most every non-profit. They need more money and help. “Attrition and old age have set in,” says Jean, “and I don’t have many volunteers anymore.” Yet the music keeps coming in – 25 cartons from one source and 50 from another. Some cartons from the CBS Radio Orchestra came in with scores so brittle, they literally fell apart when they were touched. In the basement of the Paramount, the music was carefully pieced together on a board under plastic and then photographed before being moved to the attic for storage. Up and down the stairs all day, it’s a labor of love that helps Jean stay physically fit. But even more importantly is the mental stimulation, and the satisfaction of knowing she’s preserving a treasure. It makes her life’s work all the more melodic. For more information, you can call the Paramount Theatre at 510-893-2300, extension #810. Or you can email Jean at firstname.lastname@example.org