May 9, 1946 - Sept. 4, 2020
Our beloved local “Godfather of Jazz,” Les Scher, passed peacefully at age 74 on Friday, September 4, 2020. After enduring his last years with Parkinson’s Disease at Timber Ridge Assisted Living, his loving wife, Carol, brought him home for his final days. He was surrounded by Carol, his daughters Paula and Sarah, and their families. Paula, a nurse, cared for him during his final hours while Sarah sang jazz standards. Rabbi Naomi Steinberg arrived and was singing Limnot Yameinu, “Treasure Each Day,” as he broke free. Les was a lawyer, author, jazz musician, concert promoter, jazz DJ, record collector, world traveler, husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and an integral part of the Southern Humboldt Community.
Les was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to Hannah and Meyer Scher, and moved to Palo Alto when he was four years old. Les was the eldest of six boys and took his responsibility as the role model for his brothers seriously. Les had a strong work ethic beginning as an award-winning newspaper boy at the age of 11, paving the way for the Scher boys’ paper route for the next 25 years. Les also shared his passion for music, peace, justice and progressive values, taking his brothers to concerts and peace rallies throughout their school years.
Les loved music from an early age, and after starting clarinet in 5th grade, he began listening to Benny Goodman and swing orchestras. He always traced his love of jazz to the Peter Gunn theme song. In 1961 he started playing tenor sax with the rock and roll group “The Shadows.” A year later he moved to “The Legends,” where he played with Bill Kreutzman, who later became the drummer for the Grateful Dead. Les, who always had a flair for the spectacular, would jump off the piano into the splits while playing his tenor sax. At Palo Alto High School, he put on his first jazz concerts, bringing both Dizzy Gillespie and John Handy to perform in the early 1960s. Dizzy always called out, “Hey Palo Alto!” whenever he saw Les thereafter.
Les and Carol met at UCLA in 1966 and began going to the Monterey Jazz Festival that same year. They continued this annual tradition for more than 40 years, and also went to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Les and Carol’s early life revolved around music and concerts, and they formed an especially deep relationship with the blind jazz virtuoso Rahsaan Roland Kirk. They became his “wheels” for the weeks Rahsaan would come to San Francisco, taking him out to eat and haunting record stores. Les and Carol were at Keystone Corner during the recording of Rahsaan’s iconic Bright Moments album and can be seen with Rahsaan in the inside cover photo. They absorbed Rahsaan’s deep knowledge of “Black Classical Music” and Carol still stays in touch with his widow, Dorthaan.
Les and Carol were very active in the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. Les became a draft counselor while at Hastings Law School. In 1969, while still in law school, Les and Carol discovered beautiful Humboldt County where, the next year, they bought their first piece of land. They built their country home deep in nature, surrounded by majestic trees. A common memory of those who knew Les is the experience of browsing his 10,000-album record collection, listening to Miles and Coltrane on his solar-powered record player. Les liked to refer to his 240 acre country property as “Bebop Valley.”
In 1971, an editor for Macmillan Publishing saw an article Les wrote about buying country property and asked him to write a book. Les and Carol spent 1972 writing Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country, which became the road map for “Back-to-the-Landers” wanting to move to the country and live off the land. Over the next 25 years there were five editions and over 200,000 copies sold. Throughout his life, Les was delighted to learn of the countless people who attributed their ability to fulfill their dream of country-living to his book. Les initially didn’t want to be a full time lawyer, but soon learned that he could help people through this work. Les always said he was “a lawyer on the side of people,” providing real estate and personal injury legal support to individuals throughout northern California from 1972 until he retired from law in 2010.
After settling in Southern Humboldt, Les helped establish a vibrant music and arts scene. Les donated his legal services for years to the Mateel Community Center and helped start the Reggae on the River music festival. He also joined with local musicians to form the jazz group Equinox, and he had the longest running jazz radio show on the North Coast, “Lester Leaps In”. In 1978, he co-founded the Backwoods Jazz Association, and put on the first “Rites of Spring Jazz Festival” at the Garberville Movie Theater. Les brought up his good friend, renowned saxophonist John Handy, to headline. Les went on to produce “Jazz on the Lake” in Benbow until 2001. Les played tenor sax and clarinet with Equinox to open the show each year. Among the countless world-famous musicians that he brought to the community were Richie Cole, Eddie Jefferson, Cal Tjader, Airto, Sun Ra, Bobby Hutcherson, Andy Narrel, Hugh Masekela, Tito Puente, The Neville Brothers, Spearhead, Irakire, and Elvin Jones, to name just a few.
Les and Carol were also early members of B’nai Ha-Aretz and the Southern Humboldt Jewish community. Les embraced Naomi Steinberg and her family when they first moved to the area and she became the beloved Rabbi of Temple Beth El in Eureka. Paula, Les and Carol’s eldest daughter, was Rabbi Naomi’s first Bat Mitzvah.
Les and Carol loved to travel. Les was genuinely interested in people and drew out their stories, making friends across Europe, Africa, Asia, Central and South America and Australia. Les never wanted to go to the same place twice and everywhere he went, he surrounded himself with music. During their travels Les and Carol rarely booked an itinerary in advance, preferring just to show up and make new friends. This spontaneity continued even after the birth of their daughters, Paula and Sarah.
As a father, Les was both devoted and playful. Paula and Sarah’s time with their dad was always an adventure, whether being exposed to amazing music from infancy, taking “gag shot” family photos around the world, or excitedly gathering “supplies” (e.g., candles and candy) when a thunderstorm was on its way. Les and Carol specifically nurtured Paula and Sarah’s lifelong love of music and dance, taking the family to jazz camp and enrolling the whole family in the community orchestra and tap lessons. The excitement and pride Les had for his family continued throughout his life. When his daughters speak of him, they say that he raised them with the mindset, “do what you love and love what you do.”
Les was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at age 49. While he battled with his progressing illness, he continued to live large with a zest for life. Even in his final years, Carol took Les out for dinner and music several times a week. The Scher family wants to thank Timber Ridge Assisted Living for providing excellent loving care to Les for the last 5 years.
Les supported many community groups over the years. If you would like to consider making a donation in Memory of Les Scher, the family would suggest one of these non-profit organizations: KMUD radio, the Southern Humboldt Hospital Foundation to help build a new hospital, the Jewish communities B’nai Ha-Aretz in Garberville and Temple Beth El in Eureka, the Redwood Jazz Alliance in Eureka, the Les Scher Jazz Scholarship Fund through the Humboldt Area Foundation, or the Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation.
Les was preceded in death by his parents, Meyer and Hannah, his brother, Arnold, and Carol’s brother, Bruce. Les is survived by his wife, Carol, and his daughters and their families: Paula, Pete and Howard, and Sarah, Tito, Clara and Ashton. Les is also survived by his four brothers, Danny, Robert [Elise], Eddie [Lori], and Jerry [Susan], and Carol’s brother, Brian [Cindy], and his 15 nieces and nephews and 11 grandnieces and grandnephews.
A large, music-filled Celebration of Life in Southern Humboldt will be held at a future date.
When we think about Les Scher and his legacy, we remember Rahsaan’s words ~ Bright Moments ~
The obituary above was submitted on behalf of Les Scher’s loved ones. The Lost Coast Outpost runs obituaries of Humboldt County residents at no charge. See guidelines here.