Ward Swingle (1927-2015)

January 23, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Not sociology but, to borrow Chris Uggen’s term, “self-indulgery.”)

Ward Swingle died last week. A few weeks earlier, I had been listening to this video of Andras Schiff playing the Bach C-minor partita, and I heard him play a wrong note in the Sinfonia. Maybe not wrong, but not what Bach wrote – a C instead of a B♭.*  Ward Swingle was the reason I knew.

In 1963, Phillips released “Bach’s Greatest Hits” – Bach compositions done by the Swingle Singers, a vocal octet, plus drums and one of Europe’s top jazz bassists, Pierre Michelot). I listened to that record so often enough that I knew every note in the Sinfonia. I even got the sheet music, and since the left hand was mostly eighth notes at a slow tempo, I could play it in my own clumsy fashion.**

Here are the Swingle Singers lip-synching to that record. Funny, but what sounded so cool then, now sounds thin, even cheesy, especially with the drums, and I think it would be better a capella.

Because the Swingle Singers were based in Paris (many of them had been in the Double Six de Paris), I was surprised to learn from the obits that Swingle himself was not French (he grew up in Mobile, Alabama) and that Swingle really was his name rather than a nom-de-disque he invented because of its jazzy overtones.

* It comes at about the 2:00 mark.

** I am entirely self-taught (i.e., untaught) at the piano, and my left hand is pretty much useless for anything but chords.

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