Junior Music major Adam Swanson is most at home in front of a piano.
Adam Swanson loves old-time piano. And later this month, he's going to share that love, festival style.
Swanson, a junior Music major from Shenandoah, Iowa, was 10 years old when he first heard ragtime music. “We bought my grandparents an internet system, and I heard ragtime as the background music,” says Swanson. “I liked it so much I started asking my mom to play it, because she played a little piano. Before long I started learning on my own.”
That was in 2002. Since then, Swanson has taken the world of ragtime by storm, winning the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest as a junior in 2003, 2004 and 2006; and as an adult from 2008 to 2010. A year ago, he made his New York debut in Carnegie Hall, where he performed with multi-platinum-selling artist Michael Feinstein. He also has released several CDs, and each year plays concerts and festivals worldwide.
It’s thanks to ragtime piano that Swanson first came to Durango and found Fort Lewis College. In 2004, Swanson came to Durango to see Johnny Maddox, the “King of Ragtime,” who, although retired, would perform for four weeks each summer at the Diamond Belle Saloon, in Durango’s historic Strater Hotel. Despite their 65-year age difference, the pair became friends, and Swanson's idol became his mentor. And like his mentor, he also couldn’t help falling in love with Durango.
"There’s a whole group of people who enjoy ragtime music and go around the world to find it," Swanson says. "Luckily for me, I can surround myself with people like that in Durango. This is a great place to live. There are a lot of talented musicians here who I’m becoming friends with. It feels like home.”
Since 2006, Swanson has joined Maddox playing at the Diamond Belle each summer, and now he himself is a frequently featured performer there. “Sometimes I feel like I started playing at the Diamond Belle that summer and never left,” he laughs.
This month, Swanson will bring all those loves together when the Diamond Belle and Strater Hotel host the first Durango Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival, March 22 – 24. The festival is Swanson's creation, offering three days of ragtime and early jazz music performed by some of the best ragtime entertainers in the world. There will also be symposiums, dance lessons, silent movies backed with live music, and after-hour parties in the 19th-century-styled Diamond Belle Saloon.
“They already have a legacy of ragtime at the Strater, as the Diamond Belle Saloon has been one of the few places with live ragtime on a regular basis for the last fifty years,” Swanson says. “I feel that Durango, with the steam trains and beautiful Victorian hotels, is really an ideal setting for ragtime music, which was hugely popular for several decades, from the 1890s to roughly the 1920s.”
More than just entertainment value, though, Swanson also aims to spread his love, by educating the public to the value of ragtime music and the history and culture it was borne of, and those it gave birth to.
“Ragtime is the first true original American music, and the backbone of all popular music we know and love today, from jazz and country music to rock 'n' roll. It's also closely related to the early jazz of the 1920s and '30s, including such composers as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter,” he explains. “I often worry that today's generation knows little to nothing about traditional American music. So I would love to see it preserved and appreciated, which is something I could see happening in a town like Durango.”
Visit the Durango Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival.
Learn more about the Music Department at Fort Lewis College.