Duncan Swift

Biography by

b. 21 February 1943, Rotherham, Yorkshire, England, d. 8 August 1997, Bewdley, Worcestershire, England. Swift was one of the most authentic artisans in the stride piano jazz tradition, even though he…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

b. 21 February 1943, Rotherham, Yorkshire, England, d. 8 August 1997, Bewdley, Worcestershire, England. Swift was one of the most authentic artisans in the stride piano jazz tradition, even though he came to the style, with its sophisticated musical variations, long after its mass appeal had ended. He had originally trained in classical music, obtaining two diplomas and a degree at the Birmingham School of Music. He started playing jazz by the age of 14, and pursued this interest in the evenings throughout his classical studies. Following in the footsteps of American greats headed by Fats Waller and also including James P. Johnson and Ralph Sutton, Swift established himself as the premier British exponent of the frenetic stride method. The first stride pianists - a style derived from classic ragtime but additionally featuring quick crescendos of rhythm to give the music ‘swing’ - had originally been recorded on the metal cylinders from which piano rolls were constructed, and aspiring pianists would learn by copying from the patterns of holes drilled through the hammer marks. However, unbeknownst to the early stride pianists, extra holes were later drilled in - saturating already complex piano patterns with new notes. Nevertheless, Swift was one of the pianists who somehow managed to emulate those technically obtuse patterns.

After playing with Rotherham’s Jazz Hounds, he joined Mike Taylor’s Jazz Band and took up the trombone. When he and his family relocated to the Midlands in 1960, he played with trumpeter Jim Simpson. Through Simpson’s numerous connections (he also edited a jazz magazine and worked as a promoter), Swift enjoyed a high-profile concert career in the 80s and 90s. He also released a brace of CDs for Simpson’s Big Bear label, which brought modest acclaim. As well as working with the Bill Niles Jazz Band, forming his own group, the New Delta Jazzmen, and spending seven years as a member of Kenny Ball’s band, Swift augmented his income from the 60s onwards as a music teacher. In 1983 he bought a Worcestershire pub with the intention of retiring from live music. Inevitably, however, he returned to performance by the end of the decade. For the last of his three albums he invoked his own record label; 1993’s The Key Of D Is Daffodil Yellow featured skilful interpretations of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller material, alongside his own compositions. Despite ailing health in the 90s, he continued to make a series of live concert, television and radio appearances.