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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.

LEAVING SPACE(S)

Some years back, I took one of the six-hour driver training courses designed to reduce my auto insurance bill.  What I remember most was the instructor exhorting everyone to leave space — that is, not to get right up behind cars on the highway (“tailgating”) or even when stopped at a light. 

But “leaving space(s)” is just as valid in a jazz context.  Last night, when the Beloved and I were at Birdland, I was admiring the way the front-line players — Gordon Au, Jim Fryer, and Dan Block — intertwined but stayed out of each other’s way.  The space between their phrases was almost as important as the phrases themselves. 

Think of the Basie rhythm section: a pianist who could, when younger, fill every bar in the best Waller manner — but came to understand that his job was to be an aphorist, a tap dancer over the sweet cushion of Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones.  As phenomenally brilliant as Art Tatum was, if Tatum were to replace Basie for a number, the world would be irreparably out of balance.  Consider a solo by Louis or Lester, or Buck Clayton’s accompaniment to Billie Holiday, Bobby Hackett’s to Lee Wiley.  Their pauses are essential to the shapes of their sound-sculptures.   

Jonathan Swift defined style in writing as the proper words in the proper order.  He might also have encouraged speakers and writers to leave space for breath, as the best jazz soloists and singers always do.

Or (as the story goes) when a young John Coltrane asked Miles Davis what he could do to improve his playing, Miles is supposed to have replied, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth once in a while.”

MORE ABOUT JIM GOODWIN

 

 

Life Story: Jim Goodwin

Posted by Joan Harvey, The Oregonian June 01, 2009 09:59AM

Musicians say Jim Goodwin taught them how to play music — and how to live.

He was a musician’s musician, largely unknown to the public but legendary among jazz cognoscenti and to those who played with him. His authoritative, stunning cornet leads and spontaneous outpouring of original, appropriate ideas awed other musicians and inspired them to play better.

His music reflected his soul — he was a gentle person with an oddball, oblique wit; he was brilliant, generous and unerringly true to himself. He was charismatic and immediately charmed everyone he met. Friends stayed friends forever; no one knows of an enemy he ever had.

Jim died April 19 of alcoholism at age 65.

Jim enjoyed a 40-year career as a cornetist.

 

The outpouring of grief after his death is made more bitter by the realization that such a happy, life-absorbing personality could self-destruct. But most of all, it is grief that his music is silent.

Jim’s music echoed that of Louis Armstrong, Wild Bill Davison, Bix Beiderbecke and Henry “Red” Allen.
He was a natural musician who learned to play by ear and never wanted to taint his spontaneity by learning to read music. He could pick up any horn and make it sing. He also was a well-known piano player and earned money playing drums and vibraphone.

Jim wasn’t interested in fame or fortune. He turned down an offer to tour with the Freddy Martin Band, among other offers, and refused to promote himself. He cherished his freedom.

Once he got out of the National Guard, he was never tied down. He often left for Europe with his underwear and toothbrush stuffed in his cornet case and $40 in his pocket. He returned the same way.

Jim never had a backup plan or the stability of a day job, health insurance or any regular source of income. He lived with friends, rented here and there and sometimes, especially when he was young in Europe, slept outdoors.

Still, he lived well. He had a series of cars, including a 1954 Jaguar, a Triumph TR3 and a 1950 English Singer Roadster, that he traded, swapped or adopted out as his cash fluctuated.

Jim was adamant about never owing anybody money and paid back every nickel he ever borrowed. He liked to pick up the tab when he could.

He had an innate sense of style. Aspiring musicians copied his look, a 1970s version of the 1930s, including wool newsboy caps, L.L. Bean duck shoes and thrift store tweed jackets. He was proud of his Northwest lumberjack clothes but also knew cashmere when he saw it.

He was organized; everyplace he lived, everything was orderly and filed away. And every friend has a story about Jim’s humor. Once, he and a fellow musician put their shoes on the wrong feet and, in the middle of a set, splayed their feet in front, never knowing whether anyone noticed. He had long discussions about how to tie shoes. He built mannequins and placed them on his front porch or in a darkened room complete with lit cigar and a glass of wine. They were so realistic that people were often fooled. He once recorded a tape of himself painting a fence — the only sound was an occasional car rolling by.

He and friends started Portland Brewing Co. just as microbrewing took hold. He asked to be bought out early because he didn’t want to be tied down to a business. Instead, for years he played regularly at the company’s Flanders Street Pub with Dave Frishberg.

He was raised in Hillsboro. His father was a stockbroker, and Jim earned money at his firm as a “board boy.” This led him to stockbroker school in New York right out of high school and a brief stint as a stockbroker in Portland. He liked to say that he was the country’s youngest stockbroker and youngest retired stockbroker.

Jim and his high school band, The Riverboat Six, once climbed over a fence at the Oregon State Fair to play for Louis Armstrong. Armstrong asked who the trumpet player was, and told Jim, “Make sure you floss your teeth.”

 

He served in the Oregon National Guard (playing drums and horn), and that took him to Fort Ord, Calif., where he became absorbed into the nearby Bay Area music scene. He played in all the legendary jazz haunts and, for a long time, in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. He played for the Oakland A’s pep band and went with them to three World Series.

Jim was athletic. Besides playing baseball for Hillsboro High School and softball for musicians’ teams for years, he climbed to the summit of Mount Hood several times. He once bicycled and ferried from Holland to London to visit a friend and another time walked from Berkeley to Concord, Calif., for dinner. For years, he took long walks through the forest early every morning. Portland’s Forest Park was a favorite.

He was married once, to a Dutch artist. He later lived with Aretta Christie off and on for 25 years, mostly in Brownsmead. After they separated, she kept him going through the final years of his life.

This last picture of Jim was taken aout a week and a half before he died April 19.

He was devoted to jazz and knew it upside down and backward. He and Ray Skjelbred played for years at the Bull Valley Inn in Port Costa, Calif., and could play for weeks without repeating a song. Still, Jim loved listening to classical music, particularly Charles Ives, Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius. He was clueless about rock.Most of his life was filled with music and friends. Parties lasted for days without an incident. Jim never used drugs or smoked. He was never known to tell an off-color joke or to use foul language.

But somewhere along the line, he crossed the “point,” as he said. Alcohol was no longer fun but dominated his life. He refused to take care of himself.

He told friends that he didn’t like what drinking was doing to him but that he didn’t want to stop. He refused help to see a dentist, lost a tooth and could no longer play the cornet.

People still ask his musician friends: “What’s going on with Jim?” “Do you hear anything from Jim?” He was, says Skjelbred, everyone’s favorite musician.

–Joan Harvey; joanharvey@news.oregonian.com

TOP HAT, WHITE TIE AND TAIL

A portrait by Amy King of two faithful blog-followers: poet Ana Bozicevic and Walt Whitman King-Bozicevic.  To quote Trummy Young, “‘T’aint what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it.”  Some of us have style, others only dream of it. 

ana-and-waltie

WHEN JAZZ WAS FASHIONABLE

This grainy newspaper ad for Adam Hats shows the Benny Goodman Sextet of 1941, with Davey Tough nearly dwarfed by his hat, Charlie Christian looking somewhat startled by his.  I presume that is Johnny Guarneri in the back left corner, bassist Artie Bernstein next to Charlie, and who could mistake Cootie Williams — with or without a blazing necktie — and Georgie Auld for anyone else?  Benny looks comfortable with his hat: more power to him. 

I include this advertisement here because jazz musicians were usually trend-setters in fashion, and because it summons up a time when they were also iconic figures: WEAR THE HAT THAT DAVE TOUGH WEARS would be good enough for me, then or now.

The photo is taken from Leo Valdes’s encyclopedic Charlie Christian website, SOLO FLIGHT, http://home.elp.rr.com/valdes/index.html — hugely diverting and informative even if you don’t play the guitar or have no intention of wearing a fedora.