Our upcoming Pops show will feature an arrangement of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” by American jazz icon Ward Swingle. Early in his career, Mr. Swingle performed with Les Double Six of Paris, whose founder Mimi Perrin used the technique of writing words to imitate the sounds of jazz instruments. When Double Six disbanded, Mr. Swingle established his Swingle Singers, including two other former Double Six members. He took the scat-singing idea and applied it to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, resulting in five Grammy Awards for the Swingle Singers’ early recordings. He later expanded the Swingle repertoire to include classical and avant-garde works along with scat and jazz vocal arrangements.
Choir of the Sound has a very special connection to Ward Swingle: his daughter, Kathryn Swingle, is one of our altos! We sat down with Kathryn recently to get an insider’s look at her talented father.
Q. Your dad was born and raised in the U.S., but fairly early in his career he and your mother, who also was a musician, moved to Europe. How did your parents meet, and what drew them to work and live in Europe?
A. My dad met my mother at Cincinnati Conservatory, where he was studying piano and she was studying violin. My maternal grandmother was French—my mother was born in France—and she suggested to my parents that after graduation they apply for scholarships to study in France. They got the scholarships and set out for France in 1951. My father was accepted into Walter Gieseling’s master class and my mother became a student of Georges Enesco. They got married in Paris in 1952.
Q. How did your father start using the unique Swingle Singers style in his arrangements? For example, what triggered him to decide he wanted to “swing Bach”?
A. My dad was hired to be the rehearsal pianist for Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris, which had been scored by Michel Legrand. It was through Michel that he met Christiane Legrand, who introduced him to the Paris session scene as a pianist and singer. My dad got his education in jazz vocal style from Blossom Dearie, and joined her octet The Blue Stars. After the Blues Stars disbanded, he joined the group Double Six, performing a lot of Quincy Jones’ music. That group also disbanded and my dad then formed the Swingle Singers, which began as a vocal exercise by a group of freelance session singers working in Paris in the early ‘60s, including Christiane Legrand. Dad had these singers begin reading through the preludes and fugues of Bach’s ‘”Well-Tempered Clavier” just to see if they were “singable.” The singers soon found out that they were swinging Bach’s music quite naturally. There were no words, so they improvised a kind of scat, trying to imitate the sound of the instruments. Dad took advantage of two characteristics common to both jazz and baroque music: rhythm and improvisation. That’s how the Swingle Singers’ first album, Bach’s Greatest Hits, was created. Three of Dad’s five Grammys were for that album in 1963.
Q. We’re presuming music was a constant presence in your home–what was that like?
A. Growing up first in France and later in England, I remember hearing music coming daily from my father’s study—which was mostly off limits to us kids! Sometimes the Swingle Singers would come to the house and rehearse. I could hum many pieces of music by heart just by hearing my dad play.
Q. You sing and dance; are your two sisters musical also?
A. Yes, both of my sisters are musical. My older sister Liz lives in Los Angeles and sings in a community choir. My younger sister Rebecca majored in voice and wanted to be a professional opera singer, but after she realized how tough this would be, she got her doctorate in music theory and began teaching. She is currently teaching voice at a private girls’ school in Eastbourn, England. She was the voice coach for young Isabella, who got the role of little Cosette in the recent film version of Les Miserables.
Q. Looking back on when you were growing up, did you realize your dad was famous?
A. I did not think of my father as famous because he was not a “pop singer.” During the first ten years of my life when we lived in France, Dad traveled a lot, and when he was home was often creating music in his study—so I did not spend much time with him. We then moved to England, where Dad did less traveling, and I was lucky to get to spend more time with him and had more of an opportunity to appreciate his wonderful musical talents. My father is very humble, and even to this day I am still finding out about famous people he met. For example, he once sang at the White House for President Johnson. The president winked as he shook my dad’s hand and Dad wasn’t quite sure how to interpret that; it turned out that the president had a tic that occasionally caused him to wink!
Q. The Swingle Singers have continued to exist to the present day, with new members coming in at various times. Swingle Singers pieces also can be found in very current venues–isn’t there one piece that’s been featured on the hit show Glee?
A. Yes, the Swingle Singers are celebrating their 50th anniversary, and are the longest-running a capella group, as published in the Guinness Book of World Records! Many singers have been with the group over the years, and the current singers still meet with my dad. Of course, Dad continues to allow them to use his name, reputation and arrangements. His arrangements also have been used in many commercials, movies and TV shows, and Glee indeed used his “Flight of the Bumblebee” in its very first episode.
Q. We understand that one of your father’s five Grammys sustained some damage at one point and had to be replaced. Can you tell us that story?
A. When I was four years old, I used to sneak into his studio and play with the Grammys, singing into the horns. One day, one of the horns broke off! I tried to tape it back together and hide it, but my mother found it. I was sure I was going to be punished, but Dad laughed and said “Glad to see you were singing and pretending to be a performer. Must be in your blood!” He has since had all of his Grammys replaced with the newer, sturdier version!