Call local musician Adam Swanson a musical anthropologist.
The ragtime pianist is a summertime staple in the Diamond Belle Saloon, with summer 2021 being his 15th year of playing the venue, which at the ripe, young age of 28, is more than half his life. But while he’s banging out Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin or Eubie Blake classics on summer nights in the local venue, he’s also doing what he can to teach bar patrons about the history of ragtime jazz and its role as the first brand of popular music within American mass media.
With a master’s degree in historical musicology, the guy’s a walking, talking, living, breathing, piano-playing marvel with hundreds of classic American ragtime tunes at his fingertips and even more via the hundreds of songs he has from sheet music he’s collected. He’s a musician born at the wrong time, someone who favors Buster Keaton and Berlin over Brad Pitt or Bono. Fandom of The Who, Nirvana or Wilco simply doesn’t exist in Swanson’s head.
“If you go much past the 1950s, I’m out of business,” Swanson jokes.
Since the pandemic, Swanson has been hosting concerts from his Durango home each Sunday via his Facebook and YouTube pages. The two-hour performances are theme-based, showcasing Swanson’s vast knowledge of early music, with themes being anything from playing classic New Orleans ragtime to the music of Bing Crosby. It’s as authentic as a live, in-person show can be with wonderful interaction between Swanson and his viewers, some who are tuning in and making requests from miles, time zones or oceans away.
“I’ve had people watching me from Europe, quite a few fans in Australia, and even South America. It’s amazing. And they’re watching me play at home, too, on my own piano,” Swanson said. “There is also a live feeling to it, it’s not as if I ever go back and repeat a song or try and correct something. People are constantly commenting, sending in a request and so forth. And saying hello from all over the world.”
Swanson’s musical output is dictated by time, not genre. He’s known primarily as a ragtime dude, but that may sell him a bit short. He’s a fan of piano music from a time, not just a genre, as his focus is from the turn of the century to pre-World War II.
“When I started out doing this as a teenager, people got the idea that ragtime was all I played. But I’ve always done standards and jazz from the roaring ’20s and the ’30s in addition to ragtime,” he said. “I can easily take Maurice Chevalier songs from the ’20s that were written in Paris and play those, and I know a lot of those songs anyway because of all the tourists that come through Durango. Of all those other countries or genres, I like Latin music the most. I know a lot of tangos and rhumbas and that sort of thing.”
Swanson remains dedicated to preservation. As time rolls on and the number of people who were around to enjoy this music in its heyday dwindle, it’s people like Swanson who remind us of the importance of this music and its contribution to pop culture. Continuing to teach people about this, as well as playing the music, is a life’s mission.
“I’ll never stop playing, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “You know, a generation has come and gone the last 15 years and they don’t know the style of music that I play as much, and the audience doesn’t know what songs to request. But that’s not going to stop me – I’ll always love it and always play it. I will always do this and my goal is to keep it alive. That part won’t change.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at [email protected]