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Obituary: Chester Earle “Chet” Jaeger

Nine decade Claremont resident, great-grandfather, Night Blooming Jazzmen founder was 97

Claremont lost one of its most beloved citizens last week in Chet Jaeger, who died at home at the age of 97 on January 4 after a brief bout with pneumonia. His wife Eileen, 96, was by his side, as were four of his five children, his daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren; he died a week short of the Jaeger’s 76th wedding anniversary.

As the time drew near, the family put on a CD of Chet’s Dixieland band, The Night Blooming Jazzmen. His recorded voice was singing “Sweet Eileen” at the moment of his passing.

On January 8 the family held a private memorial service in the Jaeger’s Alamosa Drive house; Thirty-three family members attended, and another 26 joined by Zoom from New York, Texas, Idaho, Northern California, Ecuador and Taiwan.

Altogether the descendants of Chet and Eileen number 58: five children (Barbara Cash of Modesto, California; Jeri Jaeger of Buffalo, New York; April Floyd of Austin; George Jaeger of San Dimas; and Holly Proulx of Claremont, and their spouses. His brood also includes 14 grandchildren with 13 spouses/partners, and 21 (and counting) great-grandchildren ranging in age from 12 years to three weeks. He is also survived by his sister and brother-in-law, Harriet (Jo) and Jim Sanders, and their family.

Chester Earle Jaeger was born November 7, 1924, in Columbia, Missouri, where his parents Chester George Jaeger and Elfrieda Springmeier Jaeger were attending the University of Missouri. In 1928 the family moved to New Orleans, where the elder Chester was hired to teach at Tulane University.

In 1931 Chet senior moved his family to Claremont, where he was hired as chairman of Pomona College’s mathematics department. He later moved to Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna) and helped establish the mathematics program at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University); he remained at the colleges until his retirement in 1961.

When the family moved to Claremont he was seven years old and his sister Harriet was an infant. His father was a prominent part of Claremont politics, serving on the city council from 1950 to 1958, and as mayor from 1954 to 1958. Elfrieda was also an active part of Claremont’s art community.

Chet Jr. attended the only elementary school in Claremont at the time (now Sycamore Elementary), Claremont Junior High (now El Roble Intermediate School) and Claremont High, when it was located in the Old School House building.

He began playing the horn at eight, and from the beginning showed he was a natural. For his 13th birthday his parents gave him his own trumpet, which still stands in the Alamosa Drive home, and on which several of his children and grandchildren have had their first lessons. He discovered traditional Dixieland jazz at a young age, and he put his first jazz ensemble together in 1940 when he was in junior high. At 18 he had begun his studies at Pomona College when, after one semester, World War II intervened, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

During a training program in Asheville, North Carolina, he was playing his horn for a USO gathering in a church basement and was having trouble holding his music and playing at the same time, when a pretty young hostess volunteered to hold it for him. He and the young lady, Eileen Deem, hit it off immediately, and after a whirlwind courtship of less than two weeks, they were engaged, just as he was shipping off to India and China to serve as a weatherman.

When he returned to the states on New Year’s Eve, 1945, he discovered that his parents and sister had come to Asheville to meet Eileen’s family, and they decided that as long as they were all together, they might as well have a wedding; thus the couple were married on January 13, 1946. When they returned to California, he completed his degree at Pomona College.

In 1950, the Jaegers — who by then had two young children — bought a house on Green Street in Claremont on the GI Bill. Their family grew to include five children, all of whom went to Oakmont Elementary School, Claremont Junior High, and Claremont High School.

He began teaching mathematics at Chaffey High School in Ontario, where he remained until 1984. He eventually earned his master’s degree in mathematics from USC. During his tenure at Chaffey he created, directed, and performed in 13 faculty variety shows.

After their youngest child started school, Eileen returned to college for her bachelor’s degree and teaching credential, and thereafter taught for 25 years at Mountain View Elementary in Claremont. In the early 1960s it became evident the Green Street house was too small for the burgeoning family, and so in 1964 they purchased a lot on Alamosa Drive and built a new house. Literally. While he hired a contractor and a bricklayer, Chet designed the house, and most of the work on the house was done by himself and his wife, his parents, the five Jaeger children, and various friends. This house remains the Jaeger homestead to this day. The Jaegers began holding a Christmas carol sing in the Green Street house in the late 1950s. After moving into the much larger house, it expanded to about 100 people, a tradition which continued through 2019.

Music and humor held an important place in his life from a very young age. His father, a former vaudeville performer, played the banjo and was an inveterate teller of old jokes, and his mother taught and played piano. As a teenager in 1941 he began organizing a brass ensemble at Christmas to go caroling around town. This evolved into the Jaeger Family Brass Band, which included his children, grandchildren and friends. The band went caroling for the last time in 2019, as 2020 brought COVID and failing health for him.

While living on Green Street, he supplemented the family income by playing dance functions with an ensemble called The Three Aces, The Four Aces, and finally The Five Aces and a Joker. In 1960 he was instrumental in creating the Society for the Preservation of Dixieland Jazz, which to this day provides a venue for jazz musicians to play music. The Jaegers were founding members of Claremont Presbyterian Church, and both sang in the choir until recently. All five of their children, many of their grandchildren, and two of their great-grandchildren, have participated in choirs, orchestras, bands and musicals in Claremont schools.

In 1974 a new Dixieland jazz festival began in Sacramento and quickly became the most prominent in California. In 1976 the SPDJ put together a band for the festival, and asked him to organize and lead it. After one of the members commented on the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine wafting through the window at their rehearsal space, the band decided to call itself The Night Blooming Jazzmen.

He was enjoying the band so much that he retired from teaching at age 60 to concentrate full-time on music. Mrs. Jaeger also retired at age 60 to become the band’s merchandising manager, selling T-shirts, vinyl records, cassettes, CDs and eventually DVDs at all its gigs. Since its formation, the Night Bloomers have played innumerable festivals, riverboats, concerts, parties and funerals in 24 states, as well as gigs in China, Japan, Australia, Germany, Austria, Holland, and South America. Although its personnel changed over the years, the group released about 40 recordings over the 45 years of its existence.

He originated the idea of a “hymn sing-along” for Sunday mornings at jazz festivals in 1977, and they have since become popular at many festivals. In 2000 he was named the San Diego Jazz Festival’s Gentleman of Jazz, and in 2014 the Sacramento Jazz Festival’s Emperor of Jazz.

He played his final gigs with the NBJ in November 2021. He continued to practice his cornet for an hour every day up until two weeks before he died.

In Claremont, he and his family participated in the Fourth of July parades for many decades, on bicycles and in wagons when their children were small, with him in various bands riding on the back of trucks. This culminated in the Jaegers being named the grand marshals of the 2016 parade. He may be most familiar to Claremont residents for the many summer concerts in the park he played over the years at Memorial Park.

In 1978 Claremont decided to name one of its neighborhood parks “Jaeger Park,” primarily to honor the elder Chester Jaeger for his contributions to the colleges and city. The memorial also contains a plaque recounting the younger Chet’s contributions, specifically through the NBJ.

For the last 14 years, grandson Jordan, his wife Dawn, and children Zoe and Caleb have lived with them, and helped take care of him as his health declined. They will continue to live there and look after Mrs. Jaeger.

He had a penchant for telling stories (repeatedly) at the dinner table. He would often preface his stories with, “Have I told you about the time …?” to which his guests would reply, “Not very often.”

“Chet was the backbone of his large family, the heart of his Dixieland Jazz community, and a longtime friend of the City of Claremont,” his family shared. “He will be greatly missed.”

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