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.