Piano (man) Lessons

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Some of us search for our creative path. Others look down and miraculously find themselves on it. I knew a man who experienced both. His path ended on March 12th, but what a creative journey it was.

Maybe some of you were lucky to have once encountered Duncan Schiedt. Your meeting could have happened a number of ways. You could have been having brunch at the old Riviera Club on 56th and Illinois Street. While cutting into your slightly overdone Salisbury steak or chasing a child on the loose around the crowded family dining room, Duncan played on the piano and supplied the background music to your Sunday afternoon. Just as his jazz hero Fats Waller did, Duncan played the stride piano, a jazz style. It was all ear rather than weekly piano lessons for this musician, and while he had the necessary amount of dedication to practice, his ear and love for music had him sitting at the piano. If you watched the Ken Burns' TV series, Jazz, or sat in a dark and loud movie theater for Spiderman 3, you would have seen some of Duncan's personal historic jazz images or an assortment he had collected and rescued from oblivion. The unguarded smile of Louis Armstrong. The lost look of Billie Holiday. Charlie Parker blowing that saxophone. Black and white moments of great musical legends.

Maybe you still love reading books, turning pages and lingering over images. Duncan wrote four books, all with a selection of his photographs (printed in his own darkroom) along with his vast knowledge -- personal, historical and academic -- of jazz music, its high period and its many kings and queens who sang it and/or played it. He was a club guy, a member of the Portfolio, the Pioneer Broadcasters of Indiana and the Indianapolis Literary Club. Along with other jazz enthusiasts, Duncan helped to form the Indianapolis Jazz Club in 1956, and it remains 64 years strong today.

Duncan Schiedt shares stories about his photography, favorite music and his life in a 2012 meeting of Photo Venture Camera Club. - DAVE OLIVE
  • Dave Olive
  • Duncan Schiedt shares stories about his photography, favorite music and his life in a 2012 meeting of Photo Venture Camera Club.

This is not supposed to resemble Duncan's obituary though. His daughter Leslie told me that in true Duncan fashion, he had dutifully updated it as each year passed, and his last edited version was "very braggy." We laughed when she said this, but after 92 years of a life that was good, purposeful and overflowing with curiosities, how do you condense or abbreviate or -- hell -- be humble for that matter? I would brag all over the place.

My children and I knew Duncan before we knew of his talents and accomplishments. He was the significant other of my late husband's mother -- or as Duncan wrote of her in his obit "a long-time friend and companion." Liz and Duncan would frequently come to our house for a dinner or get-together and no visit was complete without Duncan sitting at the piano and obliging our song requests. But I think that was the true charm of Duncan Schiedt. He was skilled and tied to a number of famous people and projects, but first and foremost, he was kind and interested in you. The you who might still be searching for that creative path or who hadn't looked down long or closely enough to see the path that lay right in front of you.

Making the Music His Own

Stride piano was developed in the 1920s and '30s in Harlem. It is known as a highly rhythmic form of playing, because of its "oompah" (a single bass note alternating with a chord played an octave or more higher) action of the left hand. Many stride pianists didn't rely on sheet music and were able to sit down on the piano bench and move through a song by using tension and release and other dynamics of playing. It seems to me that this style of piano playing required the player to be perhaps more intimate with music. To listen to a song and then make it his or her own. Duncan played piano this way and lived this way. He oompahed through his fascinating life, making it his own and, luckily for some of us, including us in the song.

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