I first met the jazz scholar / writer / photographer / researcher / pianist / all-around dear man Duncan P. Schiedt at Jazz at Chautauqua, almost ten years ago. Like many people who love this music, I already knew his name and work from dozens of photo credits and his writing.
Here is a biographical sketch for those who would like facts before proceeding.
The most significant fact and the reason for this blogpost is that Duncan died on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at his home in Pittsboro, Indiana. He was 92.
At Chautauqua, I knew Duncan as a sweet-natured man, ready to talk about his heroes and the photographs he’d taken or collected of them. He laughed easily and was generous with his praise.
In addition, Duncan was very happy to sit down at the piano in the parlor and work his way through standards and obscure songs in a gently swinging manner which I told him reminded me of the lesser-known wonders Tut Soper and Jack Gardner. My praise embarrassed him, but it was well-deserved.
I knew Duncan was aging, but he was cheerfully mobile and unhampered by his years. He always seemed to be having a good time (smiling and talking quietly with his companion Liz Kirk) whatever he was doing.
Last year — September 2013 — when Duncan began one of his informal recitals, I had my video camera with me. My companion gently elbowed me and said, “Why aren’t you recording this?” I am grateful to her and to her elbow. Here is the result.
The man and the music, the easy conversational style, and the plain-spoken elegance, are all the same.
Please delight in these performances before moving on: they are casual and eloquent, soft-spoken and melodic.
I took Duncan for granted and expected that I would see him again at the 2014 Allegheny Jazz Party. But I found out that this would not happen. On March 3, as the result of an email conversation with my friend Tom Hustad (the Ruby Braff scholar), Tom sent along this letter that Duncan was asked to posted on the website of the Indianapolis Jazz Club:
Ordinarily, I enjoy writing letters (so close to being a lost art), but today I am writing you with regrets, for this one bears bad news. Just within the past two weeks I have been told that I have terminal cancer in my abdomen, and survival through this year is not to be expected.
This whole thing came upon me all too suddenly. I spent 4-5 days in the hospital, as they sought the original site location, draining amounts of fluid accumulation caused by the tumor and thereby helping relieve shortness of breath and my abdominal discomfort. It became obvious to the doctors that is would not be practical to either radiate, or give chemo, considering my advanced age and the estimated time left to me. The idea is to make the best of what I have. At least I have some time to get my affairs in some sort of order.
I am quite accepting as it stands, and grateful for a long and healthy life, great parents, a loving sister who is six years my junior, my late wife Betty, who passed away in 1987, and two very special “kids,” Leslie and Cameron, of whose loyalty and genuine love I cannot say enough. Two splendid grandsons, Kalen and David Schiedt, complete the family circle I am now going to leave. A great companion for the last fifteen years or so has been Elizabeth (Liz) Kirk, whose breadth of cultural interests has served to enrich my life in my old age much as Betty complemented me in our thirty-seven years together. What luck this has all been for one man – who could have ever asked for more.
Some of you know of my other passions, photography, documentary films in fund-raising pursuits (about 100 of them over forty years) and my pet hobby, jazz photography and exhibitions. As for piano, it was a great release and comfort especially when playing in a small combo with friends. Golly, I never got around to reading music, did I?
That’s about it for now. Maybe we’ll have a chance to meet again before the man in the cloak and scythe comes a-calling. Meanwhile, my phone and e-mail is at your disposal. Next time you decide to hoist the glass, have one for me. Somehow, I have a feeling that we are going to have a reunion down the road, accompanied by a musician we both have loved.
Is it a date?
Duncan concluded this letter-to-his-friends with his two phone numbers and his email.
That morning, I read the letter to myself several times, on the verge of tears, and went to tell my companion the news. I tried to read her the last sentences but didn’t have a voice to do so.
When I was sure I could speak, I picked up the phone and called the number — Duncan’s daughter picked up and after a few words, passed me over to Duncan. I was concentrating on avoiding the usual pieties, but he was happy to speak and more at his ease than any person in his situation could have been.
And he didn’t want to talk about himself.
No, he wanted to talk about a scrapbook of photographs and jazz memorabilia he knew I was interested in, and he was seriously concerned about what should be done with it — generously thinking of me and my desires first! — and the logistics of getting it to me and then my passing it on to the Smithsonian, where his collection will find another home.
His easy graciousness was amazing on this telephone call, and he apologized for having the scrapbook at all. “I was too old to take it,” he said. In the course of the conversation, I found out that he had never seen the videos I’d taken the year before, “I saw you with your video camera,” he said. I was shocked that he had never seen what I had recorded and written, and promised to send him the link. A day later I received this email:
Michael: A thousand kudos for the three cuts from Chautauqua. I have saved them for family and friends, and more as I think of them. Most of all I treasure the music of your prose accompanying the video.
Now I want to help you about the scrapbook [conscientious details followed].
How loving it was for Duncan to turn the spotlight away from himself. How gracious.
Another email — about related matters — he signed “Yours in friendship,” and his last email to me — a light-hearted one about postal matters — he sent on March 11, a day before he died.
I look back on these events and his beautiful way of dealing with them with admiration and amazement. How could he have taken so much painstaking loving care with what must have been a peripheral matter — at this time in his life, when other people might have understandably concerned themselves with themselves?
I don’t know how he found the grace to act this way in his final days, but I marvel at it.
Duncan P. Schiedt lived his life the way he wrote and the way he played the piano: with a delicate touch, a reverence for what was important — the deep melody of taking care of other people. His modesty and sweet humility are remarkable. I am both lamenting his death and thinking, “How proud I am to know this man.”
I know some of you might think, “When you are that close to death, all the trappings drop away, and your true essential self emerges.” I can’t argue with that. But dying didn’t ennoble Duncan, nor did it imbue him with some new depths of feeling and spirit. He was that way in life.
Knowing how to live graciously and kindly and unselfishly — with love! — is the most valuable gift we can possess, and one we can share with others. Duncan had that gift well before I met him in 2004, and he showed it — without showing off — every time I encountered him, in person or in print.
But perhaps the gift, the skills, the delicate strengths of character necessary to live so beautifully are small compared to the rare art and wisdom of knowing how to leave the party with grace, with gratitude, with lightness.
If you think I am exaggerating or being sentimental, I urge you to reread Duncan’s original letter. And then listen to his piano playing.
I know that Duncan has left this tangible world, and I will catch myself looking around for him at the Allegheny Jazz Party, but I will always feel that he is here with us. And I will attempt to live up to his easy, loving model of how to behave. His light will continue to illuminate and warm.
I ended my telephone conversation with him with the only words I could say without bursting into tears, “Thanks for everything, Duncan.”