Corte Swearingen Introduces a Ragtime Master to a New Generation

Like most pianists who have devoted their lives to ragtime and early jazz, they remember the precise moment—and maybe even the exact workwhen they first heard the music that would strike a chord deep inside and change their lives forever. For American pianist Corte Swearingen, that moment came in 1978 at Walt Disney World when at age 10 he found himself on Main Street U.S.A. and heard unfamiliar music coming from a little spot called “Coke Corner.” Little Corte was enthralled by what he was hearing, and no amount of coaxing from his parents to go on rides could pull him away from that piano. Standing there for a full hour until the piano player went on break, he resigned himself then and there to go home and demand that his piano teacher introduce him to this new music: “Ragtime.

With the advanced world of Chopin and Liszt already at his fingertips, Swearingen began his musical studies at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music at age 15. His dream was to become a concert pianist; but he changed his mind at the last minute to study physics and mathematics at the University of Illinois. Over the years, although expertly proficient at the keyboard, piano was not a consistency due to work and raising two daughters.

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Swearingen learned ragtime the way most pianists of a certain generation did: pre-PDF internet downloads, one was inclined to reach out to the composer directly via snail mail, request a certain piece of music, enclose a check, and, hopefully within a few weeks, receive the music in the post. Such was the way he became familiar with the ragtime works of William Albright, William Bolcom, Hal Isbitz, Donald Ashwander, Max Morath, and Glenn Jenks. The folio he received from Jenks was A Garden of Ragtime, a publication by Squanlake Music containing 12 Jenks rags. Upon receiving the folio, Swearingen was instantly taken by the harmonic sophistication and beautiful syncopated melodies.

In 2018, Swearingen began to focus his musical endeavors on the music of lesser known American composers such as Judith Lang Zaimont, Frances Marion Ralston, Ulric Cole and Dana Suesse. What developed from this focused interest was a series of recordings forming what Swearingen called the American Piano Music Series: An Excursion into American Piano Music. After three volumes, Swearingen considered recording a few more pieces by Glenn Jenks for the series. Beginning in 2021, however, after a string of conversations with a colleague and longtime-friend of Jenks, a few piecesbecame all 34 ragtime works for piano. Piece by piece, rag by rag, Swearingen spent two full years immersed in the music of Jenks. His personal upbringing and musical studies aided in his understanding of Jenks’s style and writing.

Glenn Jenks composed ragtime works for the piano from 1972 until his untimely death in 2016. Very little is known as to the stories behind each works creation except for the occasional dedication; and even rarer commentary from the dedicatee. Jenks did not start dedicating his compositions until 1975 with one of his most famous rags The Harbour Rag, which he dedicated to Jim and Reeny Gilbert, owners of the Harbour Inn in Camden, Maine, where he used to play and sing folk music in the 1970s.


Out of the handful of dedications Jenks attributed his ragtime works to over the years, only a dozen remembrances were collected to accompany each piece for the compilation of complete works for piano published in 2020. With a span of over 50 years, we are left with a wanting of understanding as to why Jenks chose the titles he did for each of his 34 ragtime works for piano or the recipients of his dedications. What is left to be said for the vast body of work lies within the musical analysis of the compositional structure and harmonic style of each piece—and the brilliant mind behind them.

Corte Swearingen

Corte Swearingen’s Volume I of The Complete Ragtime Works for Piano by Glenn Jenksreleased on March 1, 2024—begins with Jenks’s Red Beard Rag. Written in 1972 when Jenks was 25 years old (and known primarily as a folk guitarist and singer in piano-bars and honky-tonk saloons throughout New England), Red Beard Rag is simplistic in its harmonic and rhythmic structure; reminiscent of Jenks ragtime performances on guitar. Listening to Swearingen perform this first rag of Jenks, one is instantly struck with the deep connection he possesses with the music; yet also the personal component of performance style that adds the perfect touch of freshness and compliment. In particular, his seemingly on-the-spot improvisation to close the cadence of the B-strain with a slow jazz swing that promises to bring a smile to those who remember the wit and good-natured fun Jenks brought to the keyboard.

Continuing with Sincerity Rag, The Florida Rag, Bachelor’s Two-Step, and The Spice Box (all written in 1974), Swearingen displays a unique ability to illuminate Jenks’s syncopations and harmonies inspired by turn-of-the-century works; yet honor the subtle hints of internal counter-harmonies that will later become a Jenks staple. Paying tribute to the “Great Three” of ragtime: Joplin, Lamb, and Scott, Jenks proves he is a master of the early ragtime genre; especially with Bachelor’s Two-Step; which is dedicated to James Scott and sounds as if the “Little Professor” wrote it himself.

Listening to Swearingen perform the nuanced strains with a light classical approach paired with a novelty ragtime zest gives these early rags of Jenks just the right combination of elegance and stride. Even more delightful is watching Swearingen perform these works on his YouTube Channel at

In 1975, Jenks’s proficiency bursts forth with five rags, beginning with one of his most recognized: The Harbour Rag, a Classic Rag in the grand style. Donned with a splendid “break strain” (sometimes called a “dogfight”) leading back to a non-repeated stand-alone strain, a charming catch-the-beatsyncopation in the right hand brings home the final D strain in a true 3-over-4 grand ragging style. Swearingen’s playing is crisp, clean and precise; skillfully demonstrating the effects Jenks utilized in representing different instruments within a marching band.


A Ragtime Seabreeze, Pacific Coast Rag, and The New Black Eagle Rag (dedicated to the New Black Eagle Jazz Band) follow with equal mastery, but it is with The Black Preacher that Jenks breaks free of any form and introduces a whole new sound. An early example of off-setting the regular 2/4 beat is shown in the very first strain where Jenks emphasizes the left hand strongly from the up-beat of the previous measure into the down-beat of the next. The teasing of an approaching walking bass linethroughout the rag brings the element to an all-and-out showcase in the final strain where the left hand displays a turn-around from the dominant to the 7th back to the dominant with an authentic swing style boogie-woogie bass. Swearingen is in his stride performing this rag and pulls out all the stops when he “brings it home” in the final few measures.

1976 and 1977 only saw Jenks produce two rags respectively: The Exemplar (Dedicated to the late, great Max Morath) and Roulette Rag. The Exemplar is a full, rich and perfectly structured work, implementing all styles of elevated ragtime. Lesser known among the Jenkss rag, Roulette Rag is a remarkable novelty” work for piano filled with humor and agility. The music evokes a gambling establishment with a pianist providing background entertainment for the gamblers. Demanding a hold on to your hatsperformance in the final strain with instructions to Place Your Bets!from the composer, Roulette Rag readies the pianist for a fast-paced 5 over 2 cross-the-bar polyrhythm symbolizing a trackball speeding around the fast spinning roulette wheel. With multiple repeats marked Faster Stilland sempre 8va, Swearingen’s rendition—the first recording ever of this rag—speeds to the end in a blinding dizzy as a final full tremolo fermata chord rings out, symbolizing the trackball coming to rest in a roulette pocket.

Leonard Bernstein said of George Gershwin: “He was a songwriter … and at a certain point in his life he wanted to write real pieces—with form.” In 1986, Jenks did just that with A Ragtime Trilogy; comprising of three works: I. French Lace (A Concert Waltz in Ragged Timewhere in Scott Joplin meets the famous Johann Strauss”), II. Desperation Tango (or, “You Think You Have Problems”) and III. The Ragtime Hurricane—one of Jenks’s fastest ragtime works. Each piece a well crafted musical gem filled with novelty humor and pianistic skill, Swearingen shines in this classical trio; displaying both graceful refinement and incredible virtuosity.


The last two works in Volume I separate the early years of Jenks and the years that would classify him as a celebrated and esteemed composer of classical chamber works, art songs, orchestral and choral works, and pieces for solo piano in various musical genre; including a string quartet, piano concerto, collection of waltzes, hundreds of folk songs, and a folio of original maxixes and choros (Brazilian tangos). Both The Ragtime Hermit Thrush (Dedicated to the Lamb Family: Joseph, Amelia, and Patricia Conn) and Elegiac Rag can no longer be categorized within any early form of standard rag writing. They transcend into a combination of both Ragtime and Classical music.

It is this combination of Classical training and technical virtuosity, along with his life-long appreciation and love for ragtime music, that places Swearingen as a top interpreter and authentic expert of Jenkss ragtime works for piano. Swearingens diligent conviction, tireless devotion and meticulous attention to the study of Jenkss music reveals that there are times while listening to this album that one not only hears the composer himself but is raised to a new height of performance and level of individual uniqueness that presents a rendition unlike anything heard before.

During his lifetime, Glenn Jenks was unsettled when someone referred to him as: just a ragtime composer. With this Volume I collection, neither Jenks nor Swearingen will ever be associated with the word: just. This album stands alongside the greats: not only the great composers, but the great pianists, as well. It will introduce the music of Glenn Jenks to whole new generations for decades to come; and re-introduce the genius to those who remember him with great fondness and hold him in such high admiration.


Aaron Robinson is an award-winning, Emmy nominated composer, conductor and best-selling author. He is the Artistic Director and founder ofThe Glenn Jenks Ragtime Revueand musical scholarship held annually in Midcoast Maine. Visit him online

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