Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ken Nordine – Word Jazz

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

a ken nordine poem

hey... what are you up to ? and what's it about... this stuff you call Word Jazz, they say it's far out. just why do you do it and what's it good for? is that someone knocking? who's that at the door?

the something that makes it
whatever it is
is outside the main stream
of show busy biz
you do what you have to,
compulsively free,
and after you finish,
just where will you be?

and what if you get there and nobody's there, just you and the empty way up there somewhere, you look down the distance of all that has been to see if you see how you used to fit in

“Ken Nordine, yea I know that guy.

I heard his voice 1000 times, he’s the guy in the bus station that say ‘go ahead I’ll keep an eye on your stuff for you,’ and you see him the next day walking around town wearing your clothes.

He broadcasts from the boiler room of the Wilmot Hotel with 50,000 watts of power. I know that voice, he’s the guy with the pitchfork in your head saying go ahead and jump, and he’s the ambulance driver who tells you you’re going to pull thru.

He’s the guy in the control tower who talked you down in a storm with a hole in your fuselage and both engines on fire.

I heard him barking thru the Rose Alley Carnival strobe as samurai fireman were pulling hose.

Yea, he’s the dispatcher with the heart of gold, the only guy up this late on the suicide hotline.

Ken Nordine is the real angel sitting on the wire in the tangled matrix of cobwebs that holds the whole attic together..

Yea, Ken Nordine, he’s the switchboard operator at the Taft Hotel, the only place in town that you can get a drink at this hour.

You know Ken Nordine, he’s the lite in the icebox, he’s the blacksmith on the anvil in your ear.”
- Tom Waits, 1990

For many Jazz fans, the name “Ken Nordine” and the phrase “Word Jazz” are synonymous.

But you won’t find much written about him in Jazz literature.

Maybe it’s because Ken is an anomaly, a one-of-a-kind Jazz sound.

In a sense, he possessed the ultimate in Jazz – an instantly recognizable “Voice,” in his case, literally.

Ken does word associations, vignettes, absurd dialogues with a Jazz group playing in the background. Some of these word plays are hipper-than-hip verbal expositions, many of which have a mystical, Zen-like quality to them.

What makes them so mesmerizing is the way Ken speaks the words and the sound of his rich, deep and resonating voice. Put him in an echo chamber and Ken could instantly become the ultimate, Voice Of Doom!

Much of Ken’s earliest recorded work in the Word Jazz genre can be found on four recordings he did for the Dot label: [1] Word Jazz [Dot Jazz Horizons LP #3075, Spring, 1957]; [2] Son of Word Jazz [Dot Jazz Horizons #3096, Spring, 1958]; [3] Next! (Word Jazz) [Dot LP, #3196, Spring, 1959]; Word Jazz Vol. II [Dot LP #3301, Spring, 1960.

Eighteen tracks from these Dot LP’s have been issued on CD by WordBeat/Rhino CD reissue of Word Jazz [R2 70773].

Ken celebrated his 93rd birthday om April 13, 2013.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember him on these pages with he following Irwin Chusid insert notes from the CD reissue and with a video montage made up of the cover art and photographs of Ken from his four Dot LP’s set to Down The Drain which you’ll find at the conclusion of this piece.

Irwin’s writings provide a comprehensive overview of much of Ken’s career. You can also visit Ken’s website for his blog postings, podcasts and comprehensive discography at wordjazz.com.

Irwin Chusid continues to broadcast at WFMU which is based in East Orange, NJ and you can learn more about him and review his many interesting projects by visiting irwin.wfmu.org.

© -Irwin Chusid/Rhino Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“You can hear Ken Nordine, but you can't see him. In a sense, he's everywhere.
As Jeff Lind pointed out in the Illinois Entertainer: ‘Nordine would make an excellent subject for one of those American Express commercials-millions have heard his voice on radio and TV...but virtually no one except his family and business associates would recognize him on the streets.’

He's hawked Taster's Choice, Chevrolet, Gallo wines—on an estimated 300-400 radio and TV spots a year. You heard him this week and didn't know it

Commercial voiceovers are what Nordine does for a living. But what does he do for fun? Word Jazz, which he describes as ‘a thought, followed by a thought, followed by a thought, ad infinitum, a kind of wonder-wandering.’

This Rhino collection offers a provocative sampling from Nordine's four volumes of Word Jazz released on Dot Records from 1957-60. With contemporaries like Kerouac, Miles, Lenny Bruce, and Ernie Kovacs, Word Jazz set the stage for the surrealistic mind expansion of the '60s.

Neither strictly jazz nor traditionally musical, Word Jazz explores the nether recesses of one man's whimsical thought processes, a sort of Kafkaesque CATscan. Conventional logic leaves the studio, while Absurdity and Humor commandeer the console. The Chicago Reader, in tribute to his ‘multichannel madness,’ referred to Nordine as ‘The Man With the 24-Track Mind.’

Plot a map of the Word Jazz kingdom and it would resemble a Candyland game board—if the Mad Hatter wrote the rulebook. There's Adult Kindergarten, where mayors and plastic-awning salesmen hold jam sessions on tabletops and wastebaskets - as therapy. Here's a man, obsessed with Reaching Into In: ‘...hope grips him by the neck, faith bear-hugs his middle, charity twists against him with toe­holds. Three to one isn't fair.’

Faces In The Jazzamatazz haunts the Second City's boulevards, ‘striking matches against the old Chicago midnight,’ exploring the expressions of hipsters, high rollers, and those ‘hiccupping home to hangover.’

Original Sin and What Time Is It? are fables about ‘regular guys,’ whose routines are disrupted, respectively, by mice and an anonymous, persistent 2 a.m. phone prankster. In Hunger Is From, Ken goes straight for the refrigerator and never leaves the kitchen; in Down The Drain, he begins with a ‘sitting down shower’ and ends up doing the backstroke in the Caribbean.

During a 1980 interview with Studs Terkel on WFMT in Chicago, Nordine demonstrated Word Jazz's spontaneous evolution: ‘Suppose I wanted to write a book, an extraordinary book, different from any book ever written. I'd call it Crumple. Each page would be complete in and of itself, and be crumpled and placed in a large cylinder. To read the book, you'd reach in, take out a page, un-crumple and read it, crumple it up, put it back, and take out another. Pages could be read in random order. There could even be suicide notes in it.’ Add a flute to this scenario, along with some offbeat trap drums, and – Voila! - a Word Jazz is born
The inventor of this art form was born in Cherokee, Iowa, to Swedish immigrant parents, but his family moved to Chicago when he was four. He remembers that ‘in my teens, I would talk to people on the phone, and they would tell me I should get into radio because I had a good voice.’ He enrolled at Northwestern School of Speech, but quit after two weeks (‘It was too dull.’). Nordine then infiltrated Chicago's WBEZ radio in the '40s; from there, he moved to WBBM (CBS), where he did staff announcing for two years (‘under four different names,’ he admits). When TV became king, Nordine hosted a late-night, one-camera series called Faces In The Window, featuring Gothic readings of Poe, de Maupassant, and Balzac (on commercial television, years before PBS existed).

During the early '50s, he hung out with sidemen Johnny Frigo and Dick Marx (singer Richard's father) at a North Side joint called the Leia Aloha, telling stories and reciting poetry with improvisational jazz accompaniment, ‘I wasn't a beatnik, though,’ he stresses. ‘I was totally isolated from what was happening in San Francisco.’

In 1955, he was asked by Randy Wood at Dot Records to narrate the orchestra/chorus rendition of bandleader Billy Vaughn's The Shifting, Whispering Sands. (‘It was written by a southern Illinois minister," Ken notes, "and I wanted to correct the grammar.’) The single became a Top 5 hit. Impressed with Nordine's thunderous delivery, Wood signed him to a contract. Ken's first Dot LP, Love Words, featured melodramatic recitations of standard love songs. ‘The nicest thing I can say about it,’ he now recalls, ‘is that it was a very weak idea.’ If you happen across a rare copy, Nordine invites you to ‘sit on it.’

Thereafter, he hit a groove: The premier Word Jazz album was followed by Son Of Word Jazz, Next!, and Volume II, released over a four-year span. The vignettes, he explains, were ‘orally rehearsed, based on an idea, although some were thoroughly scripted.’ There was, moreover, always room for ad-lib, ‘the jazz aspect, so you had freedom within the literary changes.’ Accompaniment was provided by session boppers like Frigo and Marx, Fred Katz, Paul Horn, Red Holt, and John Pisano. Equally important was engineer Jim Cunningham, who employed imaginative (often electronic) sound effects drawn on the musique concrete of Cage and Stockhausen (check out The Sound Museum).

Though artistically acclaimed and selling respectably, the LPs weren't big moneymakers (it's doubtful Dot expected them to be), and Nordine continued doing commercials for clients such as Miller Beer and Motorola. Word Jazz made friends in odd places: Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase choreographed a routine to My Baby. Ever the cult figure, Nordine was invited to cameo on Chicago psychedelic band H.P. Lovecraft's second LP ('68), improvising the track Nothing's Boy.

He made two marginal albums for Phillips: Colors ('68), featuring two dozen 90-second impressionistic monologues on such shades of the rainbow as lavender, russet, azure, and ecru; and Twink ('69), consisting of Nordine reading 34 of Bob Shure's gently absurd dialogues backed by Dick Campbell's instrumental combo. In '72, the ill-fated Blue Thumb label released a twin-pocket retrospective, How Are Things In Your Town?, the title derived from the tag line of Flibberty Jib. It became instantly collectible when the label folded shortly after. Flibberty Jib was subsequently adapted by Levi's for an animated television commercial, narrated by the author and introduced to millions who had never heard the original.

In '78, Nordine incorporated his own private label, Snail Records (‘We want things that catch on slowly). For Snail's first release, he updated the Word Jazz formula and spawned Stare With Your Ears, which was nominated for a Grammy. All the while, Nordine stayed busy and earned a tidy nest egg with commercials and voiceover assignments.

In the '80s, the formula not only survived, it thrived. Nordine (through Snail) released the cassette-only Grandson Of Word Jazz and Triple Talk. He produced more than 300 half-hour "Word Jazz" and "Now, Nordine" programs for National Public Radio. In 1989, he did a short take on Hal Willner's Felliniesque Disney tribute album, Stay Awake, backed by jazz mavericks Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz. Willner, a long-time enthusiast (You're Getting Better is one of his favorites), later invited Nordine to appear on his free-form NBC-TV program, Night Music.

Ken attests to being a big fan of Joe Frank's contemporary radio noir program, "Work In Progress," which explores similar psychic terrain (albeit in different ways). Frank describes the parallel as ‘the feeling that the person doing the talking is alone and reaching out to you, the listener. There's something highly personal in Nordine's attempt to make meaningful contact, either through intellect, emotion, or humor. There's also an air of mystery - you don't know this person, but the person is self-revealing.’

Ken still does commercials (recently for Murine and Bank Of America), and occasionally sneaks off to his summer shack in Spread Eagle, Wisconsin to kick back on the porch, follow fireflies, and wonder-wander. He describes the hamlet as ‘25 or 30 years behind the times.’ But then, Nordine has always been a man as comfortable glancing in a rear-view window as in a crystal ball.

Word Jazz has spanned three generations - missed by most, appreciated by the knowing, and awaiting discovery by those with adventurous ears.”


  1. What is Volume 77 ? How do I get more info about ordering a copy of this recording. What are the tracks on this.

  2. Thank you for correcting this typo.


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