Adam Swanson’s Millennial Syncopations

Not many 27-year-old performers have a professional career spanning over a decade and a half, including a performance at Carnegie Hall with Michael Feinstein and a full solo program at the Kennedy Center. What is even more amazing is that these are but a fraction of Adam Swanson’s accomplishments.

Today, when he is not performing in venues around the world, Adam can be found at the old upright piano at the Strater Hotel’s Diamond Belle Saloon in historic Durango, Colorado. Why he is based in Durango today is a story that goes back seventeen years. He started playing two-week engagements there in 2006.

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As so many before him who have been inspired by Scott Joplin’s famous piece, Swanson, who grew up in Michigan, discovered ragtime on the Internet listening to the “Maple Leaf Rag”. His mother was his first piano teacher, though he had around eight others near his home in Michigan and later in other locations after the family moved to Iowa.

Adam Swanson and Johnny Maddox 2004
Adam Swanson and Johnny Maddox 2004

By the age of twelve, Adam was fascinated by steam engine locomotives and ragtime music and one of the first ragtime recording artists he discovered was Johnny Maddox who played in Durango. Adam persuaded his family to take him to Colorado to meet Johnny and to see the famous 1881 Durango and Silverton train. They returned in the summer year after year so Adam could experience his own version of a “Rocky Mountain high.”

Adam Swanson and Johnny Maddox 2004

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Maddox was quite impressed by the pianistic ability Adam demonstrated during a break the first time the family visited Durango. Afterward the old entertainer met Adam on the front steps of the hotel. He told the boy, “I don’t do this very often, but here’s my address,” as he wanted to stay in contact. In fact, Adam had just lost a grandfather, and he explains that Johnny sort of became his surrogate grandparent. The two became close friends that afternoon despite their 65-year age difference and that friendship lasted until Johnny’s death last November.

Adam explains that several men have influenced his life and career greatly. Bob Milne was the first ragtime professional he saw perform, and Bob helped and encouraged the young prodigy on many occasions. In fact, Bob was responsible for Adam’s first public ragtime performance at Zehnder’s Ragtime Festival in Frankenmuth, Michigan, where Swanson has returned many times as a headliner.

Adam Swanson and Max Morath
Adam Swanson and Max Morath

Another one of Adam’s mentors has been Max Morath. Curiously both Maddox and Morath trace their careers through Durango. Johnny played there at the Diamond Belle from 1996 through 2012, and Max, who was born in Colorado, performed his first one-man show in Durango, Max Morath at the Turn of the Century.

As Adam advanced his professional career, he also pursued his education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in classical music from Fort Lewis College in Durango where he studied under Dr. Lisa Campi. He went on to earn a master’s degree in historical musicology from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

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Over the last fifteen years, Adam has been a featured headliner at most of the major jazz and ragtime festivals; he is the only four-time winner of the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest, in Peoria, Illinois. He is now an M.C. for the same contest now held in Oxford, Mississippi; and he has performed internationally.

Adam appeared with the late John Arpin at the Bohem Ragtime and Jazz Festival in the Republic of Hungary in 2007, and he has performed in Switzerland. His most recent foreign tour was in Australia where he performed ten concerts in eight cities in two weeks.Adam Swanson

However, his best international exposure comes right in his home base of Durango. The historic Diamond Belle Saloon attracts tourists from around the world. Adam recently conducted an intriguing survey. For three weeks he tallied the requests he received and recorded where the visitors were from. His audiences come from all over the globe and they request a lot of one hundred plus year-old standards. However, by far his most frequently requested piece was Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” which he admits he has to improvise a bit each time he plays it to keep it interesting.

Though Adam has composed a few original pieces he prefers to work on enlarging his own repertoire of turn of the century compositions, and the selections on his CDs reflect his interest. He began early by releasing two youthful, self-produced albums, Echoes from the Snowball Club (2006) and Chestnut Street in the ’90s (2007), featuring titles from the St. Louis ragtime years. In 2008, he went with Rivermont Records, On a Circular Staircase was his first release on the label. Adam wrote the liner notes and Johnny Maddox provided the introduction. The selections cover pieces from the ragtime era through the 1980s, and Adam even transcribed and played an unpublished Arthur Marshall rag titled “The Pea Picker” that Marshall performed at a 1959 Sedalia concert Trebor Tichenor recorded.

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Several of Adam’s albums include other artists. Seven Little Stars and the Man in the Moon (2009) features duets by 81-year-old Johnny Maddox and 16-year-old Adam with a solo by each. His next duet album was with Frederick Hodges (2010), Double Trouble: Hot Piano Duets, including ragtime, novelty, and popular songs they often play in their live performances together at festivals. I Love a Piano (2011) is an album of sheer joy that features Ian Whitcomb with Adam and drummer Danny Coots playing ragtime favorites and some of Ian’s own unique compositions.

Sunshine from the Fingers (2011) aptly titles its own selections, and as with his other albums, Adam wrote the liner notes and illustrated them with sheet music covers, photographs, and autographs from his vast collection.

Adam’s “Calico Rag” and “The War in Snider’s Grocery Store” with Whitcomb and Coots are on the 2013 Rivermont Sampler CD, and Adam appears on a DVD, The Entertainers (2013), with personalities from the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest. Rare and Rip-Roarin’ Rags of 1912 (2013) includes rags from the sheet music collection of Janice Cleary.

Revival Ragtime 300x300 - Adam Swanson’s Millennial SyncopationsFor a change of pace, Southwestern Swing (2014) with Jeff Johnson and the Redcliff Rounders, includes music sometimes called Texas swing, which is also well-known in the Durango area. Also, in 2014 Adam released Jazz Nocturne, a collection of art-deco era songs from popular artists, film musicals, and “jazz flavored classical works.” Hum All Your Troubles Away (2015) with Danny Coots on drums is another joyful collection of popular songs. His latest album, Revival Ragtime (2018) gathers the works of contemporary ragtime composers and includes two of Adam’s own compositions, “A Novice Novelty” and “The Strater Shuffle.”

Two more Rivermont albums are in progress; Live at the Historic Strater Hotel and Jazzin’ the Blues Away, featuring the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra with Adam Swanson at the piano. The latter album will include selections from Johnny Maddox’s extensive collection of orchestrations. Both should be released in 2019 or early 2020.

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If this article leaves the impression that ragtime is Adam’s only interest and pursuit, then that must be corrected. As he says, “I feel I have often been pigeon-holed as nothing but a ragtime pianist, and while I have an incredible passion for it, my love of early jazz and 1920s and ’30s popular music is equally strong.” This passion is regularly demonstrated by his familiarity with all of these music categories when he ably responds to audience requests to perform selections from all of those genres. He also regularly presents lectures and demonstrations on parts or on the entire spectrum of his musical interests. He is professionally knowledgeable about them all.

Michael Feinstein and Adam Swanson 2012
Michael Feinstein and Adam Swanson 2012

Since he was very young Adam has been collecting original sheet music and film ephemera. Today he has an amazing collection of music and photographs that he uses to prolifically illustrate his CD liner notes and his slide and PowerPoint lectures he frequently gives at festivals and before concert programs. His extensive autograph collection is also most impressive. Adam is very knowledgeable about films and especially the era of Hollywood musicals. He is fond of tracking down the early film stars still living and personally meeting them. He also writes many stars to acquire personalized autographs. He frequently posts on the Internet beautiful publicity photographs and sheet music inscribed to him.

He has managed to combine his interest in early film with his musical talent by regularly accompanying silent film programs. During the summer of 2019 for instance he is regularly providing the background piano score for silent movies at Durango’s Henry Strater Theater. Adam especially enjoys providing the “soundtrack” for Harold Lloyd classic movies since Lloyd lived in Durango in the early 1900s.

To round out Adam’s many interests and hobbies, he is an enthusiastic railroad buff. After all, it was ragtime and railroading that brought him to Durango in the first place, and he remains ever fascinated by the old steam driven narrow-gauge train that plies the rails to Silverton, Colorado daily in the tourist season, May to October.

Considering all that Adam Swanson has accomplished in his first quarter century, it is exciting to anticipate how this true professional will fill out the rest of his career. He has only scratched the surface working in television, film, and multi-media. However, it won’t be surprising if like his mentor, after performing for another fifty years or more, visitors to Durango find Adam back on the old Diamond Belle piano stool sending his syncopated stylings out over the San Juan Mountains to be heard all the way up the Animas River canyon to Silverton and beyond. (Johnny is so very proud.)

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