Ward Swingle, musician who made Bach swing, dies at 87
Ward Swingle, who formed a singing group that reimagined Bach and Mozart with driving jazz rhythms and playfully scatlike vocals — and that put centuries-old classical masterworks on the pop charts alongside the Beatles — died Jan. 19 in Eastbourne, England. He was 87.
The death was announced by the Swingles, which he started in the early 1960s and was long known as the Swingle Singers. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Swingle, who frequently corrected the misperception that his surname was invented for the stage, was drawn to New Orleans jazz while growing up on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. After conservatory training, he went to Paris in 1951 on a Fulbright scholarship for further musical study and made that city his professional home.
He was a rehearsal pianist for Roland Petit’s Les Ballets de Paris. A gifted tenor with absolute pitch, Mr. Swingle also worked as a backup singer for such entertainers as Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Blossom Dearie.
In 1959, he helped found the estimable vocal group Les Double Six, which sang or scatted note-for-note to jazz songs first popularized by musicians and bandleaders such as Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Woody Herman.
The singers thought like instrumentalists — trying to channel the sound of a trombone or saxophone depending on the part they were copying from the original recording. In creating the Swingle Singers, an octet of Parisian sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, Mr. Swingle borrowed heavily on that concept and applied it to very old music.
“Jazz Sebastian Bach” and “Bach’s Greatest Hits,” the group’s first records, found widespread commercial and critical interest upon their release in 1963.
The albums were hardly the first or last crossbreeding of jazz and classical music, but the Swingle Singers were a major breakthrough act. They sold hundreds of thousands of records and drew the admiration of musicians including pianist Glenn Gould, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and singer Ella Fitzgerald.
“Bach’s Greatest Hits” spent a year on the Billboard list of top-selling LPs, and the group performed at the Johnson White House and Carnegie Hall in New York as well as on numerous TV shows. They also recorded commercials for Chevrolet and Betty Crocker.
The Swingle albums used modest instrumental accompaniment — drums and upright bass — to support the singers, who would briskly sing “baba-daba-daba,” “doo-boo, doo-boo” and “bum-pah-dah” to the likes of Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” and “Fugue in D Major”.
Reviewers found the music gimmicky at times — but a highly diverting gimmick. “The vocal virtuosity is astonishing, but the music in this form is probably something you either violently enjoy or detest,” New York Times music critic Raymond Ericson wrote in 1964.
The group retained freshness because of the “stunning musicianship of these singers, whose vocal abilities equal or surpass that of any Bach chorale,” the music writer James Gavin said in an interview after Swingle’s death. “The group was completely up to the demands of singing this Baroque music.”
Mr. Swingle sought performers with strong classical and jazz backgrounds, notably the soprano Christiane Legrand. He carefully crafted the group’s repertoire, which grew to include pieces by Vivaldi, Handel and Chopin.
“It would be in bad taste to swing some things,” Mr. Swingle once told the Times. “In Bach, we have stayed away from the vocal works, most of which are religious or associated with religion. And some of his slow and stately fugues have a certain gravity that does not fit in with our style.”
In 1963, the Swingle Singers earned a Grammy for best new artist. “Bach’s Greatest Hits,” followed by the albums “Going Baroque” (1964) and “Anyone For Mozart?” (1965), each won Grammys for best performance by a chorus.
The Swingle Singers collaborated with the Modern Jazz Quartet on the 1966 album “Place Vendôme,” and the singing group was featured in the late 1960s on the Grammy-winning recording of “Sinfonia,” a demanding piece by the avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio.
In 1973, Mr. Swingle disbanded the group, only to re-form it in England under various names, including Swingle II and the New Swingle Singers. The new iterations featured an expanded repertoire that included adaptations of jazz standards, folk songs, Renaissance pieces, pop music and original compositions.
Mr. Swingle stepped down in 1984, having written more than 200 arrangements and compositions and recorded a dozen albums. He remained a musical adviser for the London-based group and lived to see its arrangements used on TV shows such as “Glee.”
Ward Lamar Swingle was born in Mobile, Ala., on Sept. 21, 1927. He said his father supported the family as an electrical contractor during the Depression but wanted to be a musician.
The elder Swingle accepted instruments as a form of payment from some clients and drilled his children in musical basics. He did not permit them to go to the movies or play baseball until he was satisfied with their progress.
Ward Swingle grew adept at the clarinet and the oboe and began playing piano professionally by his teens. He graduated in 1950 from the University of Cincinnati’s music conservatory and later studied in France under concert pianist Walter Gieseking.
Mr. Swingle composed music for several French films, including director Marcel Ophuls’s lighthearted crime caper “Banana Peel” (1963) starring Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Mr. Swingle’s survivors include his wife of 62 years, violinist Françoise Demorest; three daughters; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Swingle wrote a memoir, published in 1999 as “Swingle Singing.” That year, he told the Times that he had formed his group as a rebuttal to the dulling influence of rock and pop music on vocal arrangements.
“The Double Six sort of faded away,” Mr. Swingle said. “The rock scene was not very interesting for choruses, vocal harmonies were kind of dumb. Basically, we were just bored. We had nothing to sing. I had this classical training and so I got out ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ and I said, Let’s see if we can’t sing these things. As many people have before, we discovered that Bach swang. We couldn’t help but swing, it was spontaneous.”