Stories from Nick’s: Duncan Schiedt

Dear All:

The pieces about Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza were so nostalgic. They took me back to my almost two years in harness as a photographer at both places. I don't know how I actually got started, but as an almost penniless guy with a Speed Graphic camera, a love of jazz and the people who played it, I worked ringside from 1948-50 through the courtesies of both Bob Maltz (at the Casino) and Jack Crystal (Plaza).

I know I got started at the former place and remember that Bob's mother was the gatekeeper, not one for extending free passes but, shall we say, a good steward of the money. Bob, a true visionary, saw in me a bit of a sideshow, claiming that he liked the idea of an apparent press photographer working the room, and photographing virtually every musician in sight, even unto tubaist Cyrus St. Clair and pianists Norman Lester and Elmer Schoebel, names indeed with which to conjure! Of course, one couldn't overlook Lips Page, Wild Bill [Davison] and even the young Bob Wilber.

The weekly postcard (which I feel we all saved) posted a galaxy of names we could only otherwise dream of ever seeing in person. The Maltz payroll was probably next to starvation, and I doubt that the Central Plaza musicians fared much better. I was at least getting in free.

In the summer of 1950 I got married, and introduced my diminutive bride to Crystal's Palace, likewise a walk-up catering hall a block or so up the street and across Second Avenue. Here the house band might include The Lion, Pee Wee [Russell], Red Allen, or Higgy [J.C. Higgenbotham], with Big Sid [Catlett] generally taking charge along the back wall.

I began to shoot photos at both establishments, and Jack Crystal's welcome was as sincere as Bob Maltz's had been. In order to pay for my film and flashbulbs, I began to offer 8 x l0s of the previous week's shooting for the blushingly low price of 35 cents, or three for a dollar. Patrons could then have their heroes autograph the glossies on the spot. My wife Betty, all five feet of her, would man a table at The Plaza and I would be working the Stuyvesant Casino, shooting and selling a few prints as possible.

One unforgettable moment remains: I was still covering things at my gig when closing time came at the Central Plaza, and Betty packed up, preparing to cross Second Avenue and join me. It was well after 1 AM and as she hit the sidewalk, a giant figure loomed up beside her and said, "Where you going, Mrs. Schiedt ?" Looking up, she recognized the six-foot-four frame of Sid Catlett, and relaxed. "I'm going over to join my husband," she said. He shook his head. "Now you don't want to be doing that this time of night. It's not safe. Let me walk you over there."

And he did. That is why I cannot forget Big Sid, one of the great gentlemen.

Duncan Schiedt

Duncan Schiedt, jazz photographer, author and historian, was born in Atlantic City, NJ, in 1921. He lived in New York and suburbs from 1936-1950, moving to Indiana in 1951. He currently lives in the town of Pittsboro.