Ward Swingle, founder of The Swingle Singers, dies

19 January 2015, 16:49 | Updated: 19 January 2015, 17:38

The creator of the popular, 'a cappella' vocal style of jazz and classical music, was 87.

The legendary Swingle Singers vocal group announced the death of their "founder, friend and mentor," describing him as an "inspiration to so many in the vocal community and beyond." 

"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." 

American-born Swingle formed his original vocal group in 1962 in Paris. They quickly became celebrated for their a cappella scat singing style, which equally suited the music of Bach as well as jazz standards. The later English line-up of the group was a regular fixture on The Two Ronnies show on Saturday night television in the 1970s.

Classic FM presenter Catherine Bott started her singing career as a member of The Swingles. She says she owes Ward Swingle a "tremendous amount."

"He was a very, very genuine musician; he crossed the boundaries," she told Classic FM's Sam Pittis.

"He wasn't taking the mickey out of Bach's music. He loved the music and he wanted to bring it to a wider audience and this was a great way to do it - to have it sung with such personality and verve." 

Hear Catherine's tribute to Swingle here: 

The group also attracted the attention of contemporary classical composers - Luciano Berio wrote his Sinfonia for eight voices and orchestra in 1968 with them in mind. They also premiered Berio's A-Ronne in 1974 and Ben Johnston's Sonnets of Desolation in 1984.

When Classic FM began in 1992, the Swingles even recorded a number of versions of the station's jingle: 

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Ward Swingle loved music - especially jazz - from a very young age. He graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory before moving to France, where he studied piano. 

In the 1960s he was a founding member of Les Double Six of Paris, which pioneered the idea of singing the music of J.S. Bach in a jazz scat singing style. The concept would be the foundation for The Swingle Singers, whose early recordings won five Grammy Awards.

In 1973, Swingle moved to London and formed an English group, expanding the repertoire to include classical and avant-garde works along with the scat and jazz vocal arrangements. In 1984 he returned to live in America where he remained musical advisor for his London-based group, but devoted most of his time to workshops, guest conducting and publishing his vocal arrangements.

After returning to live in France, Swingle was named Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and Information  in February 2004. 

"It has always been an immense honour and privilege to perform under his name," The Swingle Singers said today.