Adam Swanson: World-Renown Pianist of Vintage American Popular Music

By Billy Grimes

 Summer/Fall 2022

Acs I entered the Diamond Belle Saloon, next to the Strater Hotel, the notes of Louis Armstrong’s Sugar Foot Stomp rang from the old upright piano centered near the bar. Adam Swanson, one of the world’s foremost ragtime pianists and music historians was holding court on a Saturday night. The Belle was packed mainly with tourists from places like Amarillo, Hot Springs, and Montrose. He joyfully engaged the crowd and fished for requests; The Yellow Rose of Texas and St. Louis Blues were called out and happily performed with much flourish and a bit of history added by Swanson between the numbers.

Swanson’s left hand played a steady march of notes and chords like a tuba’s “oom pah” while his right hand played the melody in a ragged, bouncy style. As he played, he surveyed the audience and drank in their appreciation graciously. The venue of the Diamond Belle fit perfectly with this music and the effect was almost cinematic. Although he is just 30, his manner is that of an older soul, perhaps because he immerses himself in an older time period.


Swanson has been a featured performer and lecturer at ragtime, jazz, and North American music festivals across the United States and abroad, and he is the only four-time winner of the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest. He made his New York debut in Carnegie Hall at the age of nineteen, where he performed with Michael Feinstein.

When he was 10 years old, Swanson heard a recording of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and fell in love with ragtime music. Music lessons followed and while on a family trip to Durango, drawn by our steam train, he met Johnny Maddox, who was playing ragtime piano at the Diamond Belle. They developed a friendship, and Maddox became one of Swanson’s greatest influences.


Swanson attended Fort Lewis College and graduated with a degree in classical piano performance. He received a master’s in musicology from the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and moved back to Durango three years ago.


Swanson plays his regular Saturday night gig at the Diamond Belle throughout the summer and has a performance scheduled at The Community Concert Hall on September 9th. He will also be performing “Silent Sunday with Swanson” at the Durango Arts Center on July 24, October 9, and December 4. Each performance includes different films, mostly comedy; feature-length and shorts, all with live music from the original period in which the films were made.


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