If there were ever a fitting music festival to be held at the Strater Hotel, ragtime might be at the center. Ragtime pours from the Diamond Belle in the summer (with its staff in period garb year-round, of course), and the pervading history and nostalgia has made the hotel famous.
Now in its fourth year, the Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival returns to the historic hotel this weekend, and in addition to musical performances, the festival features storytelling, symposiums on the history and influences of ragtime and a silent film (“The Freshman” from 1925) with live piano accompaniment.
“We get people that came here as children 50 years ago. And we get people that it’s their first time but they’ve always heard about the Old West and the Four Corners,” said Michelle Thom, general manager at the Strater. “When you really start looking at the nostalgia, a lot of it has mystique that goes along with it. When you hear the piano music, when you walk into our lobby, when you walk down the street or go to the train, it kind of comes alive to them.”
Ragtime won’t be the only genre on display this weekend. Performers will be showcasing boogie woogie, stride and blues styles, and on Sunday, the Western string band Bar D Wranglers will close out the festival.
Tickets are available for the whole festival, single days or single events. For more information, go to durangoragtimefestival.com.
The Herald spoke to Adam Swanson, the festival’s music director, about the persistence of ragtime, its history and why he enjoys playing it. Swanson has a classical piano performance degree from Fort Lewis and is a current musicology student at the Peabody Conservatory of John Hopkins University. He has also been a performer and lecturer at ragtime and jazz festivals across the country.
How would you characterize ragtime as a genre?A lot of people don’t understand or appreciate I think that it is the first true, original American music, and all the other forms of popular music we have now, from jazz and rock and roll, even rap and hip-hop, that can be traced back to ragtime. It was the first form of American pop, so to speak. It’s very happy music, in general. It has a lot of depth as well. It really makes people happy. That’s one of the things I love about playing it.
Describe the qualities of ragtime.It grew out of a combination of European music and African-American rythyms, like banjo players on plantations in the South. Instrumental rags are very much like marches. John Phillips Sousa played ragtime and loved it. They’re formatted like that with three or four sections. It has a study marching bass and the melody is synchopated or offbeat. That’s where they think the term came from, was ‘ragged time.’
What keeps you playing ragtime?I just sort of fell in love with it when I was 10 or 11 years old. I’m fascinated by the history of it and I became part of this wonderful little community of ragtime players across the country. It changed my life for the better. I made so many good friends. I love it so much I want to make it my career. I’m going to try and see what happens, either as a teacher or musician.
What is the state of ragtime outside of Durango?There are a lot of these festivals throughout the country, and I was telling Rod Barker, who owns the (Strater), about these other events where I play ... that celebrate the music, and Rod said, ‘Why don’t we have one here?’... The Strater is a perfect place for music of that era, a perfect venue.
What do people most enjoy about ragtime?That it’s uplifting. It makes you tap your foot. A hundred years ago, it was very popular for dancing. It was dance music, really, is what it was. People say it came out of bars and honky tonks and nasty places, but it was also played in the biggest ballrooms across the country. Playing at the Diamond Belle, it’s probably my favorite place that I play because I get to play for long hours in the summer. It’s a good job; it means a lot to me. I get to meet people from all over the world coming in there, France and England and Germany, and I’ll play songs like early jazz tunes from the 1920s, 1930s from France or English songs and they go wild over that.
How do you feel about the song “The Entertainer”?Ohhhhhhh dear lord. My saying is ‘O sting, where is thy death?’ because it’s from the movie ‘The Sting.’ That’s the only ragtime song anyone knows anymore. It’s really a shame. My record, I think, is about five times in one night playing that thing.
You’d have to be 120 years old to remember ragtime anymore from when it was first big. That’s a problem I run into as a person who plays primarily music from 1900 to 1945 is that the younger generation does not know it. They don’t know any songs to request. The three top requests I had last summer were ‘The Sting,’ which is not even the correct name of it. It’s ‘The Entertainer,’ by Scott Joplin, ‘New York, New York,’ and ‘Camptown Races.’ ‘The Entertainer’ is ragtime, but the others aren’t even in the realm of what I do.
firstname.lastname@example.org. David Holub is the Arts & Entertainment editor for The Durango Herald.