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Indispensable Feature Story: Ken Nordine

by Kristine England

“Let me tell you a funny story I made up about the guy who wanted to reach into in, and he couldn’t. And it bothered him. It’d bother you, wouldn’t it?” So begins the tale of a troubled man lost within his mind’s abstractions. This tale is Word Jazz, a “somewhat new medium” conceived by Ken Nordine in the 1950s.

A voice-over performer who evolved into a true artist, Ken Nordine wielded his rich, velvety baritone like a maestro and weaved offbeat short stories during the height of the beat poetry era in the 50s. He became a celebrated figure voice actor who collaborated with Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia, and David Bowie.

“Like to tell you how things are with me. I have to go back a way to do it. I was born in a very small town in Iowa — Cherokee, Iowa. Population 5,000 then. That’s a lie. Actually, there were only 3,000 in the town, but the state insane asylum was on the hill. And it was civic pride that made us add the other 2,000 so that when you would drive in, it would say 5,000.” Nordine’s short biography (“Confessions of 349-18-5171”) then veers off into fiction, but it illustrates his idiosyncratic blend of the mundane with the peculiar that would characterize the narratives he later crafted.

He was born in the small town of Cherokee, and his family later moved to Chicago. His father was not a preacher as “Confessions” asserts, but rather a carpenter who went to school at night to learn architecture. His father also loved music, and the family formed its own string quartet with Ken playing fiddle and later viola. He attended  Lane Technical College Prep High School “because they had the best orchestra,” he recalled. (1)  For a while, he toyed with continuing with his musical studies and attended the University of Chicago. But he soon changed his mind, opting for a career in radio instead. But like his father, he was also enticed by structure as well.

After finishing college, he began appearing on radio programs in the city like “The World's Great Novels” and others. One contribution, Balzac’s 1830 short story “Une passion dans le désert,” was released on a 1955 album, Passion in the Desert. In 1957, he was the narrator on American bandleader Billy Vaughn’s album, Shifting Whispering Sands.

Though classically trained himself, he loved jazz. The 1950s was a decade of exploration and experimentation with musical structures in jazz, and he became friendly with many of the players in the Chicago scene, namely Dick Marx (father of pop singer Richard Marx). Marx was a successful musician who also worked on commercials. While frequenting poetry readings on Chicago’s north side, he was inspired to create his own brand of storytelling, covering a range of topics told with dark humor and a decidedly askew sensibility.

Working with Marx in a Highland Park basement studio owned by producer Jim Cunningham, he began putting together his ideas, initially working with cutup techniques to string concepts together “in a kind of Jackson Pollock random pattern” (2). The Fred Katz Group was chosen to devise appropriate accompaniment, and Word Jazz was born. 

What is Word Jazz?

“Word jazz is something everyone does, really. It’s daydreaming. But you daydream out loud. That’s the real difference. Comparable to jazz itself from a real standpoint,” he explained. “During my beginnings, jazz was the big thing…the structure I’m working with in word jazz is language itself. Within a structure, to have each sentence suggest, in essence, another sentence.”

Nordine’s definition certainly bears out when listening to his surreal yarns. Influenced by Kafka, Shakespeare, and James Joyce as much as the Beat poets, he was economical and inventive with his word choices while remaining attentive to structure, with each sentence carefully laying a foundation for the next.

For the musical component, he had a solid group of jazz musicians as collaborators, and they could swing. An entire article could be written about his band. Cellist Fred Katz, one of the earliest soloists to use the instrument in jazz, led the group.  Drummer Chico Hamilton (who had his own well-known quintet, famously featured in the film, Sweet Smell of Success) performed under the name Forest Horn. Flutist/saxophonist Paul Horn was considered a pioneer of New Age music. Guitarist John Pisano, a member of Hamilton’s Quintet, also worked with Joe Pass, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes, Peggy Lee, and others. Jimmy Bond was on bass, and producer Jim Cunningham developed “sound patterns.”

"What Time Is It?"

Released on Dot Records, Word Jazz got the attention of people well outside the Beat and jazz scenes. Fred Astaire even got into the act, dancing to “My Baby” on his TV special in 1958. “My Baby” was a great example of Nordine’s use of the language of beat poetry to craft a lighthearted story with a fun twist. “What Time Is It?” had a quirkier tone— about a “regular guy” whose life was upended by his obsession with time. The other tracks on the album were in the same vein.

As he released several more albums on Dot through 1950, Nordine was a highly sought-after voice through the next decade, working with many brands during that time, doing commercials for Gallo Wine, Magnavox TVs, Taster’s Choice Coffee, and Levis. The Fuller Paint Company approached him to write several radio spots for some of their products, and after the spots became popular, Nordine decided to keep going.

Colors is a collection of 34 vignettes portraying the character and personality of a different hue. “As an intellectual vibration, smack dab in the middle of spectrum, Green can be a problem. That’s because there are so many different greens inside of Green. And each one has a different IQ...” Or “...the truth is that Beige is anti-color. Unless the color is right. Unless the color is beige. About as average as you can get away with seeing is the grey way Beige likes to have things being.” Each portrait is vivid and insightful, with accompaniment ranging from simple piano to contemporary 60s grooves, deftly mirroring the complexion of each hue as well. Colors abounds with social commentary, lighthearted jabs, celebratory paeans, and truly inspired wordplay.

One of Ken Nordine’s most enduring legacies is the breadth of his collaborators and fan base, “a favorite of hipsters, radio listeners, jazz fans, poets, and college stoners.” (3) He worked with Jerry Garcia and  Tom Waits (Devout Catalyst), and David Bowie (NYC High Line Festival). His radio show on Chicago’s WBEZ lasted 40 years. His narration was heard in film and on TV as well. He continued to release recordings until 2007, when his last, “The Eye is Never Filled,” was issued on DVD.

Ken Nordine had a powerful voice — both aurally and intellectually — that intrigued and captivated listeners throughout his long career. After experiencing a stroke in 2017, his health began to deteriorate. He died on February 16, 2019, in Chicago. “You hear so much about my dad’s special voice, but the thing was he knew how to use it. He also had such a special mind that enabled him to deconstruct the world and put it back together in the most compelling ways.” -- Ken Nordine, Jr. (4) 

  1. “Ken Nordine the Word Jazz Impresario,”

  2. Ibid.

  3. “Ken Nordine, 'Word Jazz' Creator, Dies at 98,” KQED

  4. “Ken Nordine, Chicago creator of 'word jazz' who had a voice that 'could give you the chills,' dies at 98,”, Chicago Tribune

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