Music’s history safe at the Strater

Hotel to host inaugural Durango Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival

Adam Swanson rehearses in a music room at Fort Lewis College on Monday in preparation for this weekend’s inaugural Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Adam Swanson rehearses in a music room at Fort Lewis College on Monday in preparation for this weekend’s inaugural Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival.

In Durango, you don’t have to go far to step back in time. That makes it an ideal setting for the first-ever Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival.

Any day of the week, one can venture into the old-fashioned Diamond Belle Saloon for a glimpse of what things looked like at the turn of the last century. Beginning today, that golden age of will be brought to life by 10 musicians from around the world and Durango.

Taking the lead is 21-year-old Adam Swanson, the youngest three-time winner of the World Championship Old-Time Playing Contest in Peoria, Ill. Swanson is a student at Fort Lewis College and a regular on the Diamond Belle piano. He teamed with Michelle Thom, general manager of the Strater Hotel, and owner Rod Barker to start the festival.

“Ragtime is one that could be lost if the interest isn’t nurtured,” said Lisa Campi Walters, Swanson’s professor at FLC. She’ll also take the stage with him Saturday night for a piano duet of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

At age 19, Swanson played at Carnegie Hall in New York City, nine years after he began playing. At age 12, he met his future teacher and ragtime legend Johnny Maddox at the Diamond Belle and has played many sets during his summers in the saloon.

This weekend’s shows will be split between the intimate confines of the Diamond Belle and the Henry Stater Theatre, which can accommodate a larger crowd.

“I hope they have as much fun as I do playing. And I hope they learn something about ragtime music, too,” Swanson said. “A lot of popular music now originated from ragtime.”

And that’s not something to be ignored. He said he’s a bit concerned younger generations are not knowledgeable about early American music.

For example, in the pre-iPad era of the early 20th century, Americans were entertained by silent black-and-white movies accompanied by piano players. Audiences will get a taste of that entertainment a few times this weekend, beginning this morning when Swanson will play the Pullman Room at the Strater to do just that.

Thom is hoping the festival will help to continue the legacy of the music.

“It’s a lost art in many ways,” she said.

Thom said Swanson was instrumental in helping her organize the festival. In November, Thom went to the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, Calif. There, Swanson introduced her to players from all over and compiled a list to invite to Durango:

Grammy-award winning artist Ian Whitcomb from England. He’s been playing for more than 40 years and has appeared on “American Bandstand” and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and has produced music for movies such as “The Cats Meow” and “Last Call.” He also has his own XM Radio station.

Martin Spitznagel earned the title “World Champion of Old-Time Piano Playing” at the 2011 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Peoria.

Hoyle Osborne has been playing the piano at the Diamond Belle Saloon for 20 years. He can also be seen tickling the ivories in the 2011 film “Cowboys & Aliens,” which was shot in his home state of New Mexico.

With a well-rounded lineup, attendees should have a good time, at the very least.

“It’s such a rich, cultural thing in America that shouldn’t be lost and enjoyed for years to come,” Walters said.