Obituary: Duncan Swift
Wednesday 13 August 1997
It is unusual for a British player to achieve the eminence that he did in a field that was dominated by Americans like Fats Waller, Willie the Lion Smith, James P. Johnson and, for the last half-century, by Ralph Sutton. Stride playing, as titles like "Fingerbuster" might suggest, requires such rare skill that its practitioners are few and their work much savoured.
The development of the "stride" style came from the earlier and mechanical sound of ragtime. Stride, much more sophisticated, added that intangible jazz element swing, and was notable for rocking and driving bass figures from the left hand. Because of an early misconception, Swift unwittingly drove himself to a unique accomplishment.
The original stride pianists recorded on to metal cylinders from which piano rolls were made. Disciples learnt by playing the rolls on a player piano. The production of the original cylinders involved powdering the hammers of the piano. When the pianist played the cylinder revolved and was hit by the hammers, each leaving an accurate powdered mark. Afterwards a hole was drilled on each mark leaving a replica of what had been played. From this the final parchment rolls could be made for distribution.
What Swift and his contemporaries didn't know was that the mechanics who made the cylinders embellished them by drilling in extra holes afterwards, thus adding more notes and making an already complex performance potentially impossible to emulate. Somehow Swift managed to overcome this with an awe-inspiring accuracy.
Most of the giant stride players had died by the time Swift was born in 1943. He had a classical training that brought him two diplomas and a degree at the Birmingham School of Music. He began playing jazz early, and by the time he was 14 was already working on jobs with local bands. He joined the Jazz Hounds in Rotherham and then took up trombone so that he could play with Mike Taylor's Jazz Band. He moved with his family to the Midlands in 1960 and played with the trumpeter Jim Simpson's band from 1961 to 1962.
Simpson, later editor of a jazz magazine, a concert promoter and organiser of the Birmingham Jazz Festival, was able to play a potent part in Swift's career. He provided the pianist with a multitude of concert opportunities and, in 1988 and 1991, recorded recitals by him which appeared as compact discs on Simpson's Big Bear label. These, respectively called Out Looking for the Lion and The Broadwood Concert, caused an admiring stir in both the jazz and national press.
After he left Simpson's band, Swift played in the Bill Niles Jazz Band. He kept his jazz career going while teaching music in schools from 1968 until 1978. He formed his own band, the New Delta Jazzmen, in 1974 until, after having worked in the band led by the trumpeter Kenny Ball on many occasions, he finally joined it in 1977 and stayed for six years.
Tired of life on the road, he bought a pub at Bewdley in Worcestershire in 1983 and ran it until 1987, when he returned to music full-time. He joined the Pete Allen band and stayed there until he left in September 1989 to become exclusively a solo pianist. In this role he played at many concerts and festivals, occasionally working as a featured player with Paul Munnery's Harlem and with the Harlem Hot Five. Surgery on his back forced him away from music for a year from 1990 to late 1991.
He made a rare appearance on trombone with King Pleasure's band and from December 1993, despite declining health, he was featured in touring shows with the John Patters band. He introduced his own compact disc label to issue his final album in 1993 under the title The Key of D is Daffodil Yellow. It was a skilled mixture of original tunes and standards with some of his notable interpretations of the music of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton.
His eloquent and spectacular playing led to his being much featured in the various media and he made about 70 radio and 130 television broadcasts.
Duncan Swift, pianist: born Rotherham, Yorkshire 21 February 1943; married (one daughter); died Bewdley, Worcestershire 8 August 1997.
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