Ward Swingle, an American jazz vocalist, conductor and arranger whose Swingle Singers brought classical music into the Qiana Age with best-selling Bach that bubbled and bounced, died on Monday in Eastbourne, England. He was 87.
His death was announced on the website of the Swingles, the current incarnation of the group he founded in the early 1960s.
Trained in classical music and jazz, Mr. Swingle began the group almost as a lark in Paris, where he had lived off and on since the 1950s. In 1962 or thereabouts, while he was working as a studio session singer, he and seven French colleagues, wanting something novel to put their voices to, tried vocalizing Bach much as a jazz singer would, using scat syllables.
The result, backed by string bass and drums, was a 1963 album, released as “Jazz Sébastien Bach” in France and “Bach’s Greatest Hits” in the United States. Featuring Mr. Swingle’s arrangements of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and “Art of the Fugue,” it spent more than a year on the Billboard chart.
The album won a Grammy Award for best performance by a chorus; Mr. Swingle also won the Grammy for best new artist of 1963. The Swingle Singers, who went on to win three more Grammys in the 1960s, can be heard scatting works by Bach, Mozart and others on many recordings, and on film and television soundtracks.
The Swingle Singers performed at the White House; at Carnegie, Alice Tully and Town Halls and the Village Gate in New York; and at La Scala in Milan. The group has collaborated with artists and ensembles including the Modern Jazz Quartet, the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the New York Philharmonic.
They were esteemed by the contemporary composer Luciano Berio, whose 1968 orchestral work “Sinfonia,” commissioned for the Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary season, included texts spoken and sung by them.
Critical response to the Swingle Singers was divided, with pop-music reviewers generally more enthusiastic than classical ones. “The group is well disciplined in its unusual craft,” John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times in 1964. “The singers are individually precise even when their ‘words’ — which usually consist of ‘baba-daba-daba’ — come tumbling out at a headlong rate.”
Compare Harold C. Schonberg, who in 1970 huffed, also in The Times, “Hearing the Badinerie from Bach’s B minor Suite buh-buh-bubbed by a singer who could not even maintain some of the basic figurations was one of the more vulgar experiences of a concert-going lifetime.”
The original Swingle Singers disbanded in 1973. Reconvened by Mr. Swingle in England not long afterward, the ensemble was known first as Swingle II and later as the New Swingle Singers. Today, the Swingles comprise seven men and women; their repertoire, sung a cappella, spans an eclectic range of styles.
Mr. Swingle was born in Mobile, Ala., on Sept. 21, 1927. As a boy, he played the oboe, clarinet and piano; by the time he was in high school, he was playing saxophone in a nationally known big band, the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra. He earned a degree from the Cincinnati Conservatory and in 1952 married a classmate, Françoise Demorest, in France.
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In Europe, Mr. Swingle studied with the eminent pianist and composer Walter Gieseking and worked as an accompanist for Roland Petit’s Les Ballets des Paris.
As a singer he performed with two Parisian jazz vocal ensembles — Les Blue Stars, founded by the singer and pianist Blossom Dearie, and Les Double Six — before starting the Swingle Singers. After retiring from full-time involvement with the group in the mid-1980s, Mr. Swingle, who remained its adviser long afterward, worked as a conductor, arranger and music publisher.
Besides his wife, with whom he had recently moved to England, Mr. Swingle is survived by three daughters, Rebecca, Kathryn and Elizabeth, and three grandchildren.
Viewed in hindsight, Mr. Swingle’s career seems almost foreordained, for his surname carries the very sound of swing within it. “Swingle” was widely assumed to be a coinage, and he spent much time assuring people that the name (derived from the Swiss surname Zwingli) was in fact his own.
“People always ask me that,” Mr. Swingle told The Times in 1982. “And they want me to prove it by producing my passport or my mother.”
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