Last week, Indiana lost an important figure in Hoosier jazz history when jazz photographer Duncan Schiedt passed away at the age of 92. Schiedt was a talented photographer whose work captured iconic images of many Indianapolis jazz luminaries. Schiedt was already well established behind the lens when he moved to Indy in the 1950s, having spent the decade prior photographing jazz royalty like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.
In addition to his work as a photographer, Schiedt also authored a few significant titles on jazz history, including Ain't Misbehavin' an early biography of Fats Waller (1950) and Jazz State of Indiana (1977) a pioneering work on the development of Hoosier jazz.
I spoke with another notable Hoosier jazz photographer Mark Sheldon about Duncan Schiedt's life and work in jazz music.
NUVO: Can you share some of your thoughts with us on Duncan Schiedt as both a person and an artist?
Mark Sheldon: I think most people know Duncan for his work with jazz musicians, but prior to that he did some photography and film work for the armed forces. He was sent to document the atomic bomb tests in the Bikini atoll. He also wrote some books and he was a very good pianist in the traditional swing jazz style.
People throw around the term renaissance man these days without really understanding the definition. But Duncan was really that guy. He was a photographer, a filmmaker, a researcher and a musician. He did a lot of things very well.
NUVO: What makes Duncan's work historically important? Was it purely his technical skill, or his knowledge of jazz guiding him to be at the right place at the right time to capture a moment?
Sheldon: It's really both. He was photographing jazz as early as 1939. Duncan was around Indy when Wes Montgomery was still just a local guy. He photographed in the jazz clubs Indianapolis had at the time. All of that was definitely a matter of timing.
But the technical side of Duncan always amazes me. In today's world, I go out and shoot with a digital camera. But even if I use a film camera, today's cameras are auto-focus, auto-exposure; they're kind of auto-everything. Duncan went out with 4x5 cameras or an old beat-up Nikon with nothing automatic on it. It was a different scene back then. Photographers had to work a lot harder for meaningful photographs. Guys now go to shoot an hour long show and they come away with 700 images. Duncan would shoot an hour long show and leave with eight images.
NUVO: You mentioned Duncan's book Jazz State of Indiana and his work photographing musicians in Indy's jazz clubs. What do you think Duncan's legacy is in Indiana jazz?
Sheldon: In addition to his personal photography, Duncan was an avid collector of photographs pertaining to music in general. When you look at that Jazz State of Indiana book there are hundreds of photographs in there that through his research he rescued from probably oblivion.
What his book did in a lot of ways was to help show the importance of the musicians who lived in Indiana. Certainly California and New York have had their jazz scenes and still do. But look at the players that came from Indy like J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, David Baker. And these are guys that Duncan knew. If you're playing jazz today in a bebop style you really have to go through the school of those musicians. A lot of jazz writers will tell you there is an Indianapolis sound, so Indianapolis' role in jazz is pretty important. I think Duncan was instrumental in communicating that to people.