Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ken Nordine Wizard of Word Jazz Passes

Ken Nordine.

Note—Ken Nordine died Saturday at the age of 98. His unparalleled, smooth baritone guided WBEZ listeners through "Word Jazz" for more than 40 years. This post is adapted from one that originally ran during the National Poetry Month series in 2016.
And now, as they say, time for something completely different.  We have featured a couple of young spoken word artists, both by happenstance young women who had been refugees.  One uses all of the modern communications bells and whistles—social media and YouTube to spread her words with the speed of electrons around the world.  The other is a World Champion Slam poet who has come out of a world influenced by rap and the avante guard performance art scene.  Both, whether they know it or not owe a deep debt of gratitude to the marriage of Beat Generation coffee house performance, cool post-war jazz, and a Chicago Radio guy with smooth golden pipes and the impeccable phrasing of an Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis. 
Ken Nordine invented and perfected something called Word Jazz where sound disembodied from radio or recordings play inside the listeners mind.  He did it since the ‘50’s and almost to the end of his life today at it age 98.  And all of it is as fresh as the most  stuff out there.
Nordine was born in Cherokee, Iowa on April 13, 1920 but the family soon moved to jazz age Chicago.  His father was an architect who did work at the Century of Progress World’s Fair.  His extremely religious mother encouraged young Ken to ad lib sermons for her, early training for thinking and speaking quickly on his feet.  He attended Lane Tech on the North Side, one of the city’s elite high schools.
He went on to attend the University of Chicago where he founded the radio club spurred by his admiration for the work of Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, and Arch Obler.  He got a job running the Mimeograph and doing other odd jobs and clerical work on WBEZ, then an educational radio station serving Chicago Public Schools.  More importantly, his smooth, rich voice got him work in Chicago’s busy scene producing radio dramas, soap operas, sketch comedy, and situation comedies for local stations, network distribution, and syndication.  He worked as a voice actor and sometimes even as a host/presenter on anthology programs under several different names—Michael Scott, Ken Conrad, and Eric Lander among others.  Among the programs were The World’s Greatest Novels and Michel Scott Presents.
After graduation he wed Byryl with whom he would have a long and happy marriage which produced three sons.  The young couple moved around a lot at Nordine served the typical apprenticeship of a radio announcer, moving from station to station in small towns and increasingly larger markets.  There were stops in Bay City, Michigan, and West Palm Beach, Florida.  By the early ‘50’s he was ensconced at WBBM, one of Chicago’s top stations and a CBS affiliate where he was a staff announcer. 
By mid-decade he was bored with just playing records on the late night show he hosted.  He was already occasionally reading poetry, short stories, or newspaper clippings.  He decided to add a jazz back drop to the readings and to punctuate the words, much like bongos and muted horns were being used in smoky coffee houses where poets read their stuff.  Initially most of the material was written by others but he mixed in unconventional sources—want ads, catalog listing, and other found material which elevated the sound of the words over their meaning.

Nordine recording an electric calculatore.  Mundane sounds punctuated the riffs of Word Jazz
Nordine collaborated with a multi-instrumentalist studio musician.  They would discuss the presentation before the show.  He would make notes of what sounds and what instruments he wanted and where to drop them in.  He would add sound effects like dripping water, a clacking typewriter, or a revving engine.  The musician would add his suggestions.  Then they would go on the air.  They were loose enough so that they could improvise and jam together.
Eventually Nordine began mixing in his own words.  His pieces could be full of humor and whimsy or dark, foreboding, almost nightmarish.  On critic noted his work could be “more akin to Franz Kafka or Edgar Allan Poe” than to the Beats.  He called it simply Word Jazz.
People were fascinated by what he was doing and in 1957 Dot Records and inked a contract with him.  Nordine’s first LP Word Jazz featuring  cool jazz by the Fred Katz Group featuring Chico Hamilton recording under an alias due to contract restraints with Hamilton’s regular label.  The album was a cult hit and a strong catalog piece selling well year after year.  There were follow-up albums including Son of Word Jazz, Love Words, Next!, and Word Jam, Vol. II.

In the early '60's Nordine may have looked like a button down ad man, but something else entirely was going on in his mind.
Nordine and Hamilton brought the concept to Television in 1960 on WNBQ (WMAQ-TV since 1965) Channel 5.  On a late night show called Faces in a Window Nordine sat on a stool illuminated with a single dim light on an otherwise darkened set and read poetry and his original material while the Fred Katz Group played.  Around the same time Fred Astaire danced to one of Nordine’s recordings, Now Baby on one of his TV specials.
Eventually Word Jazz became a stand-alone half hour program broadcast on WBBM-AM every Monday at Midnight.  That’s where I discovered and fell in love with Nordine and his work while I was a high school student in Skokie recently transplanted from Cheyenne.  His work influenced an original monologue I created for Forensics completions based on a Walter Mitty-esqe concept.  Although I initially won medals for the routine at speech meets, the officials of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) found the piece too weird and disqualified it.  I was so proud.
In addition to his successful radio stints Nordine has always had a parallel and highly lucrative parallel career as a free lance voice-over artist.  He has appeared in everything from industrial and school instructional films to commercials and movie trailers.  Eventually he convinced advertisers and advertising executives to allow him to create his own spots and campaigns for both radio and television.  Among his memorable campaigns were those for the Chicago Film Festival, First Chicago Bank, Levis, Magnavox, and Taster’s Choice.  He was also the voice and creator of the memorable Chicago Blackhawks Cold steel on ice.

Nordine's psycadelic TV spot for Levis became a cult favorite and is often included in film festivals of breakthrough shorts.
In the ‘80’ Word Jazz moved to National Public Radio which commission 65 programs.  Some NPR stations continue to run that original batch.  But Nordine continued to create and syndicate new programs which he made in his Chicago home studio employing the latest computer technology.  He continued to produce new records on a variety of labels including Grateful Dead.  Stare With Your Ears in 1979 was nominated for a spoken word Grammy.
In 2005 Nordine added a visual component to Word Jazz with a DVD featuring abstract computer animation, The Eye Is Never Filled.  He was a guest artist on many programs and recordings including on DJ Food’s eclectic electronic album The Search Engine in 2012.  

Ken Nordine in his 90's was still hipper than all of  us
Nordine was not too old to be hipper than all of us.
I can’t reproduce Nordine’s spoken word poetry on a page.  It doesn’t remotely work.  You have to hear it.  So here is a small collection of his pieces on YouTube.
First up, My Baby from the first Word Jazz album—the cut Fred Astaire danced to.  Then Coffee Won’t Hurt You and Flibberty Jib.


Friday, February 15, 2019

Modern Art Throws a Bomb at American Culture—The Armory Show

The Armory Show by James Huntsberer.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known to history as the Armory Show opened on February 15, 1913 at the 69th Regiment Armory (The famous Fighting 69th of Civil War and World War I fame) in New York City.  The exhibition, sponsored by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, was the first introduction of modern art to the American public.

Armory Show poster.

It featured many artists who were well established in Europe, particularly France including all of the leading Impressionists, Pointillists and Expressionists including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gaugan, and Vincent van Gogh.  Also featured were Americans who had studied and worked in France like James McNeil Whistler and Mary Cassatt.  Today these artists are so familiar to us that they do not seem daring.  But the American public, even the sophisticated, art consuming classes of the New York elite, steeped in traditional representationalism had never seen anything like it. 

Americans had never seen anything like Vincent  Van Gogh's Olive Trees, Pale Blue Sky and that was just the tip of the shock iceberg.

The public was even less prepared for the younger artists.  Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch were taking Expressionism to even bolder extremes.  But it was the Cubists who both outraged and captured the public’s attention.  They included Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso.  Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Stair Case was the most talked about—and derided picture—in the exhibition.  It was described as an “explosion in a shingle factory.”  The painting and other Cubist work was denounced by the President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt himself who thundered (did he ever talk any other way?) “This is not art.”  

Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Stair Case became the most notorious painting exhibited in the Armory Show.

Critics fretted if it was bad for the morals of the community and that it might induce “societal psychosis.”  Predictably, there were calls to close down the exhibition, even to arrest the organizers.  Authorities, however, demurred and let the exhibit run its scheduled course through the Ides of March.  

The curious of all classes flocked to the show to see what all of the fuss was about. They found 1300 works by 300 artists arranged in 13 galleries at the sprawling armory.  Top American artists from New York, Boston, and Chicago were included.   The exposure of the American artists to the avant-garde freed them to undertake their own experiments in modernism.

The Chicago newspaper that published  Harriet Monroe’s review of the Armory Show before it moved to the Art Institute  used the kind of shock and derision that was standard in much of the press but the forward thinking poet was much friendlier: “It is enthusiastic, exuberant; it offers the glad hand to any one, young or old, who has something special and personal to say in modern art. And its welcome is generous; each man has space enough for all his moods…. We cannot always tell what they mean, but at least [the cubists] are having a good time.”

When the show closed, the Metropolitan  Museum of Art, considered the ultimate judge of important art in the US, signaled its at least partial approval of the new developments when if purchased one picture from the show—View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph by Cézanne. 

Cézanne's View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph.

The exhibition went on to show at the Art Institute of Chicago and to Copley Hall in Boston, where work by American artists was removed due to a lack of space.

The Armory Show was just one of the cultural tsunamis shaking up provincial and complacent American culture.  In a few short decades a wave of new inventions from the light bulb and telephone to automobiles, moving pictures, and airplanes had changed the way people lived at what seemed a galloping pace.  Waves of immigration were transforming American cities into stews of swarthy aliens with foreign religions and politics.  Socialism and class warfare were on the rise.  Notions from evolution to psycho-analysis were altering world views.  The revolution in the visual arts was paralleled in rag time and jazz music, new forms of theater, the rise of the novel as the primary literary expression, and movies bringing the world to both Main Street and Broadway

Wassily Kandinsky’s Black Stroke I  even anticipated the abstract expressionism of the post-World War II era.
The adoption of the work shown at the Armory that year by the educated classes was then and is still resented by a deep strain of populist anti-intellectualism. In fact recent cultural events show that the backlash is actually more than a hundred years later as the most reactionary elements of society gain traction by rejecting all traces of modernism.