Guest writers from Audrey Journal met with three musicians at different points in their careers. All three will present their skills in three concerts during Spring. This is part 2.
THE RECENT GRADUATE: ADAM SWANSON
What were the kids listening to in 2002?
Nellie has a monster hit with Hot in Herre. Eminem dropped Without Me. Usher, Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Jo-Lo were everywhere.
But Adam Swanson, then aged 10, wasn’t listening to anything in the Billboard Chart. His ears were pricked to the hit sounds of a century ago – ragtime.
“I turned 10 in 2002 and that’s when I first heard Maple Leaf Rag,” says Swanson, speaking from his home in the small city of Durango, Colorado. “My mom showed me it and I just loved it straightaway. It clicked with me for some reason and I’ve never really listened to much modern music since. My mother also taught me some of the pop songs of the 1920s like Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue and Toot Toot Tootsie! I still love ’em now, I sure do. I even listen to this stuff in the car!”
Just a year after first hearing Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Swanson was strutting his stuff in the junior division of the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest. He won.
By the time he turned 12, Swanson was playing in heritage music festivals. At 13 he played the prestigious Cincinnati Blues Festival. He’s played for composer Richard M. Sherman (Disney’s Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book) and, recently, for silver screen-era Hollywood actress Mary Carlisle, aged 103.
He graduated with a degree in classical piano and completed a master’s degree in musicology at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in 2015, and is now considered one of the leading ragtime pianists in the United States.
“I’ve only been out of graduate school for a year and half but I’m making a living,” Swanson says in a baritone western drawl that belies his youthful looks. “It can be tough and I have to do other things as well but one of the best jobs I have is playing in a gorgeous 1887 hotel, the Strater Hotel here in Durango over the summer.”
That gig is a link to ragtime’s past. The previous occupant of the Strater’s piano stool was Johnny Maddox, a multi-million selling artist whose own interest in ragtime music went back to an aunt who played in ragtime orchestras and vaudeville bands in the early 1900s.
Energetic and syncopated, ragtime developed as a distinct style in the 1890s in the southern cities where African American pianists combined African rhythms with European marches, Swanson explains.
“It’s a little difficult to describe because it encompasses so many styles but ragtime is the first truly American style of music. All the great American popular music that came later evolved out of it – jazz, rock and roll, early blues, you name it. Stride piano in the 1920s was very influenced by it.”
The layperson’s idea of ragtime as music played in bars on out-of-tune upright pianos is a misconception, Swanson adds. “Pianos were the common instrument of the time but ragtime was played by bands and orchestras, by banjo players. There were instrumental rags and ragtime songs sung in the vaudeville theatres all through the turn of the century.”
While the style is very much associated with the great black composers of the day – Scott Joplin, James Scott, Jelly Roll Morton and others – it was written and performed by white artists, too, women as well as men.
Swanson has amassed a huge collection of sheet music from the period 1890-1930. “My guess is that I have about 15,000 pieces of old sheet music now. I recently moved it all back to Durango. Old 78s, and piano rolls too. I have a 1913 Apollo player piano I’m very fond of.”
Ragtime’s popularity was eclipsed after World War I by the rise of jazz but there were revivals of interest, beginning in the 1950s with the multi-million selling pianist Winifred Atwell.
“It was very popular again in the 1970s when the movie The Sting came out,” Swanson says. “And now there’s a really interesting following for ragtime through YouTube. That’s how most people find out about me.”
But you can’t beat hearing and seeing ragtime played in the flesh, says Swanson. “People are really surprised by the energy of it. Especially when it’s played on a really good piano.”
Ragtime is a technically demanding style. “Especially for pianists who don’t play a lot of it,” Swanson says. “Classical pianists find it a real challenge for some reason and you have to make up your own arrangements because a lot of the printed scores in the early 1900s were very simplified for the folks buying the sheet music.”
Swanson finds himself playing to an older demographic much of the time though he’s on a mission to bring ragtime and its spin off styles to younger sets of ears.
“That’s one of the reasons I love playing at the Strater Hotel, because you get tourists from all over the world there and a lot of younger people. And I think the music really catches them by surprise.”
Swanson’s first tour to Australia sees him playing regional venues, the Riverside Theatres, and in Newcastle where he’ll play with a local jazz band.
Swanson says he’s honing his repertoire to include some period Australian classics.
“I really love Along the Road to Gundagai, it’s a beautiful song, a really great tune. I’m getting around to learning Waltzing Matilda.”
Written by Jason Blake and originally published on Audrey Journal.