DUNCAN P. SCHIEDT (1921-2014): LIVING AND DYING GRACEFULLY

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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.  The Beloved 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 the Beloved 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]. 

Gratefully,

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.”

Yes.

17 responses to “DUNCAN P. SCHIEDT (1921-2014): LIVING AND DYING GRACEFULLY

  1. Douglas Pomeroy

    His photo collection contains many exceptional items and I know you will see that they don’t get lost or end up in unworthy hands. He was a sweetheart, yes.

  2. Well, Duncan’s collection is aimed for the Smithsonian . . . and the scrapbook (Walt Gifford’s to begin with) will end up there after I have scanned as much as possible to share with JAZZ LIVES. Because of Duncan (among a million other things) I have that copy of a photograph of Basie and Sullivan on the same piano bench . . . sending love, DMP

  3. Thomas P. Hustad

    Thanks, Michael, for capturing some of Duncan’s wonderful humanity. I think of him as a catalyst. Simply, when he was around good things happened – consistently. He did not thrust himself into the footlights and never took credit. Far from it. He answered praise with a smile, and then changed the subject. Often you had to pay attention to spot him even when he was on the bandstand, for others were often more visible. Like many leaders, he knew how to work with others, whether in musical settings or doing so many wonderful things to support musicians and jazz history. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Starr-Gennett Foundation in Richmond, IN, and is included in a painted mural in Indianapolis celebrating jazz, see https://www.facebook.com/starrgennett/posts/381351235270273?stream_ref=5. A quick search will point you to his wonderful books of photographs. One is the photo of Ruby Braff with Louis on the cover of my book. One of his many ‘favorite’ subjects was Willie “The Lion” Smith.

    Here is one of my favorite stories told by Duncan. Quickly …

    Long ago at an auction he bid on a set of file cabinets loaded with 78s with a friend. Many of the records were Gennett’s and others of similar vintage. The bidding reached a level beyond their budget, where they regretfully needed to stop. They approached the winner softly afterwards and enquired if there would be any chance that this person would be willing to sell a select few of the records. The buyer replied that Duncan could simply take all of the records, for he was bidding on the file cabinets and the records would have been discarded.

    Duncan, thank you for being a friend and enriching so many lives.

  4. jOhn P. Cooper

    A well known name of a great contributor. RIP, sir.

  5. Jeanie Wilson

    That was a lovely, heartfelt and sensitive piece of writing about Duncan Schiedt, Michael; thanks for sharing the sad news with us. Unfortunately, I never met Duncan but corresponded with him via email and snail mail a couple of times over the past few years — he took many pictures of Barbara Lea during her career which I am so grateful to have. And I certainly look forward to taking a peek into that Walt Gifford scrapbook with you!

  6. How beautiful, Michael.

  7. Michael P. Zirpolo

    Michael,

    A magnificent, moving tribute to a splendid human being.

    I always used to kid Duncan (a very easy thing to do), that I wanted to be like him when I grew up. His unvarying reply was “I hope you never grow up.”

    He will be missed.

  8. Joanne Horton

    He was a good friend & a great supporter of ‘our music’.He will be deeply missed- he knew Bob from The Wildcats!!!!He had a photo he wanted to give us from that time-motto don’t put off until tomorrow!!!!
    We know he will be happy joining his old pals upstairs,God bless you Duncan!!!

  9. Thomas P. Hustad

    Duncan’s obituary was published today in the Indianapolis Star newspaper. See it here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/indystar/obituary.aspx?n=duncan-p-schiedt&pid=170153234&fhid=14562

  10. Michael, you’ve written a beautiful and moving tribute to Duncan, my friend of nearly 40 years. Thank you, thank you. And bless Duncan’s spirit and memory. May his legacy live on through all he touched and through his indelible work.

  11. That was a very moving tribute Michael. Bill Wood and myself spent many years at Chautauqua next to Duncan in the lobby. I was very flattered that he wanted to sell me his wonderful Sheet Music collection. I made the drive to see him on Tuesday ( the day before he passed), and spent a wonderful hour with him. I was unsure of how to leave and what to say. Finally he said with such grace “just go Greg . Everything will be ok”. We will miss you Duncan

  12. I met Duncan at Chautauqua while I was with my late husband Bobby Gordon, and had some nice “chats” with him. He took some wonderful pictures of Bobby and loved his playing. He was special to us both.

  13. Pingback: ANOTHER KIND OF TRIBUTE TO DUNCAN P. SCHIEDT: DUKE HEITGER, BOB HAVENS, DAN LEVINSON, ANDY STEIN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, JON BURR, RICKY MALICHI at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 21, 2013) | JAZZ LIVES

  14. Beautifully said, Michael. We’ll all miss Duncan very much.

  15. Terry Parrish

    I first met Duncan through a now also deceased friend here in Indianapolis (Bill Urban) and quickly became good friends. He was always welcoming, warm and friendly when we would get together to talk about various musicians, He enjoyed talking about Luckey Roberts and gave me several cherished pictures he shot of Luckey at his Rendesvous in the 40s. Duncan was just a wonderful, helpful, scholarly gentleman who I was extremely lucky to have known and called a friend. When I visited with him this past January he told me of his medical status but neither of us had any idea it would be cancer. He told me, “well, you gotta die from something” which was most prophetic. We are going to miss ya, Duncan….you’re going to get some great shots up in heaven. God bless you my friend

  16. Charlie Coleman

    Shocked and saddened is all that I can think right now. I’m glad that I had the chance to talk with him one last time at the Indianapolis mid-winter IAJRC meeting in January. One last ‘jam’ session with a fine musician and great friend. Charlie Coleman

  17. Mick and Sally Fee

    Our times with Duncan at Chautauqua, Meadville, Indy and a host of IAJRC Annual Conventions are treasured memories. A talented gentleman, full of warmth and wit… oh how we will miss you, Duncan. Michael, you have captured our feelings with your beautiful and heartfelt tribute. Mick and Sally Fee

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