Founder of the acclaimed acapella ensemble The Swingle Singers has passed away aged 87.

Ward Swingle, the founder of the internationally acclaimed acapella group The Swingle Singers, has died aged 87. Swingle passed away on Monday morning in London, after recently relocating from Paris to be nearer family.

In a touching statement, current and past members of the Swingle Singers described their sadness at losing their “founder, friend and mentor.” The statement continues, “As an arranger, composer and vocalist he redefined what singers could do, made us hear music in a new way and brought us so much joy. It has always been an immense honour and privilege to perform under his name.”

Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Swingle was largely influenced by the vibrant local jazz and big band scene. He continued to be fascinated with jazz as a student of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before moving to Paris in the early 1950’s where he studied piano under Walter Gieseking. Swingle remained in Paris into the 1960’s and founded his first vocal ensemble, Les Double Six.

Swingle combined his love of jazz and classical music by applying the technique of scat singing to the music of JS Bach. This revolutionary idea, pioneered through performances with Les Double Six, would become the musical identity of the first French incarnation of the Swingle Singers. The group’s early recordings, including Jazz Sebastien Bach which featured jazz vocal arrangements of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, were unparalleled in their success and earned the ensemble five Grammy awards. The group’s unique aesthetic, which included the use of microphones, piqued the interest of a number of contemporary composers, most notably the visionary Italian composer Luciano Berio. His postmodern symphony Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra, written for the Swingle Singers is regarded as one of the most radical works for voice and ensemble of the 20th century.

After the French Swingle Singers disbanded in 1973, Swingle relocated to the United Kingdom where he recruited a British line-up for the group, as well as expanding the ensemble’s repertoire to include more classical and avant-garde works alongside the scat and jazz-based vocal arrangements that had secured the group international acclaim. The Swingle Singers continue to be in-demand all over the world today, with an extensive international touring schedule, and a discography of dozens of albums, with a new release due this year.

Swingle was also a highly regarded choral conductor, arranger and composer, with invitations to direct ensembles from all over the world. His engagements to direct included the Stockholm and Netherlands Chamber Choirs, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the BBC Northern Singers and the choir of the Music Educators National Conference at the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C. In 2004 Swingle was decorated by the French government for his contribution to French arts and culture as an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres).

Former Swingle Singers member Meinir Thomas, a Welsh soprano now based in Australia, had these remarks on the sad news of her friend and colleague’s passing. “Being a part of Ward Swingle’s world as a member of The Swingle Singers changed the lives and careers of many singers. I will be forever grateful for the experiences I had touring the world with the group, and the skills I acquired during five of the best years of my life.” Thomas also shared an insight into the affable and nurturing character that defined Ward Swingle’s career. “I’ll never forget his kind words of encouragement and that deep, soothing Alabama accent. His legacy and influence will continue to touch the lives of singers and the acapella community around the World.”

Ward Swingle is survived by his wife Francoise and his three daughters. 

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