Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Ken Nordine: 1920-2019

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

“Ken Nordine, yea I know that guy, I heard his voice 1000 times, he's the guy in the hits station that says "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 firemen 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 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

“Much more than the creator of Word Jazz, Ken was a true mensch. He gave
back to the community in many ways -- major support for the Chicago jazz
community and the Chicago Film Festival are two that I know about, and
he did it for years. I met him a few times to show him new audio gear
for his home studio, one of the most professional and best equipped in
Chicago. Once I brought him a radically new microphone that was well
suited for recording sound effects, which were quite important to him We
spent a half hour or so together exploring the possibilities. This was
about 35 years ago, so he would have been in his early '60s then, and he
had a very inquiring mind.

After moving to Chicago in 1964, it took me a while to realize Ken
didn't have a single voice, he had many, each distinctively different.
He was a real institution in Chicago broadcasting circles, as well and
in the community at large.
- Jim Brown, audio engineer and sound systems

“Word Jazz has spanned three generations - missed by most, appreciated by the knowing, and awaiting discovery by those with adventurous ears.”
- Irwin Chusid, WFMU, East Orange, NJ

Ken Nordine died on February 16, 2019 and the editorial  staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember him on these pages with a selection of writings about him and his work. He would have been 99 years of age on April 13, 2019.

The following are Irwin Chusid’s insert notes to the compilation Word Beat CD [Rhino R2 70773] with selections drawn from the Dot Records Word Jazz LPs, which is how many of us first came to know Ken.

These are followed by a story about Ken that appeared in The Chicago Tribune in 1993 that reflects on the later years of his career and the obituary that appeared in the same paper following his passing.

“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 - each, 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 CAT-scan. 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 2am 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, uncrumple 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 lo this scenario, along with some offbeat trap drums, and - voila! - a Word Jazz is born.

The inventor of this an 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 hoppers like Frigo and Marx, Fred Katz, Paul Horn, Red Holt, and John Asano. Equally important was engineer Jim Cunningham, who employed imaginative (often electronic) sound effects drawn on the musique concrete [which involves using sounds found in nature, distorted in various ways, to create music] 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 (1968), 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 hy 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 tagline of Flibberty Jib, 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 voice over 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 occasional he sneaks oft lo his summer shack in Spread Eagle, Wisconsin to kickback 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.”

Irwin Chusid
WFMU, East Orange, NJ


Dennis Polkow, a Chicago freelance writer CHICAGO TRIBUNE May 9, 1993

Chances are, even if you've never heard of Ken Nordine, you've still heard Ken Nordine.

Nordine has sold any and everything with his voice, reigning as the king of voice-overs for radio and television commercials for over 50 years. The guy could probably sell us swamp land in Siberia if he wanted to, with a basso so

Somewhere during the beatnik era of the mid-'50s, Nordine, a great lover of jazz, decided to experiment with what he dubbed "Word Jazz"-i.e., reading his own poems to improvised music.

Among his earliest and largest fans were some Bay area kids who would a decade later begin a rock group called the Grateful Dead. "Jerry Garcia has renewed my entire career," Nordine candidly told the cheering crowd at the Vic Theater Friday night, largely a combination of New Age types in black and ever faithful tie-dyed Deadheads.

Since several band members performed on Nordine's latest "Devout Catalyst" album on Grateful Dead Records, perhaps they expected one or more of the Dead to make an impromptu appearance, as Nordine had done when the band played the Horizon in March.

Whatever the crowd may have expected, what it got was a master storyteller spinning clever yarns about everything from how he got into radio, to a portrait of a North Side sports bar with a fat bartender named Skinny.

"Can we have some music for the beginning of the universe," bellowed Nordine back to his five-piece band, which included his son, guitarist/keyboardist Kristan Nordine, vocalist Bonnie Herman, harmonica player/keyboardist Howard Levy, trumpeter and bassist Eric Hochberg, and drummer Jim Hines. "Yeah, yeah," said Nordine, responding to the pedal points and impending groove. "That's probably the way it sounded. Close your eyes-unless you're driving."

Despite the "Word Jazz" label, it is not so much Nordine's words that are jazzed - most are scripted - but rather, Nordine's live word paintings are used as a springboard for the musicians to create an appropriate musical texture to surround them, which they all did admirably.”


Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, February 16, 2019.

“Before you read the words written below about the life and times and accomplishments of a man named Ken Nordine, who died Saturday at his North Side home at the age of 98, it would be a good idea for you to listen to whatever you can find at http://www.wordjazz.com.

What you will discover is the one-and-only voice of Ken Nordine, one of the few people in the history of radio to use the medium to its fullest potential, rather than as a forum for blather, confrontation, inanities and noisy nonsense. He made a kind of vocal music as the voice of thousands of commercials and as the force behind a new art form he created and called “word jazz.”

You may never have heard the Ken Nordine name, but there is no doubt you have heard him. He was often referred to simply as “The Voice,” and you will read elsewhere that he possessed “the voice of God.” As complimentary as that may be, it is hyperbole. Nordine’s voice was as distinctive as any, but it also carried a palpable and unforgettable humanity. For the Chicago Blackhawks, he gave voice to these four unforgettable words — “Cold steel on ice” — that remain firmly embedded in local minds.

Those many hockey commercials were crafted by Chicago’s Coudal Partners advertising/marketing firm through the 1990s and into the next century. Kevin Guilfoile, now a successful novelist and screenwriter (castofshadows.net), was intimately involved in the process.

“Working with Ken was a thrill and an inspiration,” Guilfoile said Saturday. “He was a one-of-a-kind master poet, performer and producer — one of those rare people with a brilliant singular vision and also the creative and technical chops to make that vision a reality all by himself. There was something so pure about his art.

“He was also a pleasure to work with. When I heard the news of his death, the first thing I did was call (firm president) Jim Coudal, and Jim said, ‘There was nothing like answering the phone when Ken called.’ That’s so true. Just hearing your name said by that voice could give you chills.”

Nordine was born on April 13, 1920, in Cherokee, Iowa, the son of Theresia and Nore Nordine. His father was an architect/builder, and some of his work sparkled along the lakefront during our 1933-34 World’s Fair. This is where the family settled and where Ken attended what is now Lane Technical College Preparatory High School and the University of Chicago.

He started work in 1938, making $15 a month running a mimeograph machine at the studios of WBEZ, when that radio station programmed exclusively for the public schools. He then moved on to announcing jobs at stations in Florida and Michigan before returning here to become a staff announcer for WBBM-FM and to start making radio commercials.

One writer described his voice as an instrument that "muses and oozes like molten gold."

In 1945, he married Beryl Vaughan, also a talented voice artist on such old radio program as the "Lone Ranger" and, for a time, was a Hollywood actress.

They settled into a home on the North Side and raised three sons.

“My father loved Chicago, deeply,” said his eldest son, Ken Jr., who worked for many years as an engineer and producer alongside his dad. “He was ever turning down opportunities to work in New York or Los Angeles.”

As successful as Nordine’s announcing and commercial work was, he was creatively restless and drawn to more adventurous vocal avenues. One night in 1956, he was reciting the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe for musicians Johnny Frigo and Dick Marx at a Wilson Avenue club called the Lei Aloha. He ran out of poems and started to improvise. Thus was born what he called “word jazz,” a concept that would go on to spawn a dozen record albums, a syndicated radio show and make him a legend.

In 1990, Nordine accepted an invitation from Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to perform with them at a New Year's Eve concert. He would also collaborate with David Bowie, Tom Waits and many others in a late-life career that compelled one writer to call him “an underground hipster for the ages.”

None of this went to his head. “He was just the loveliest guy,” Guilfoile said. “And surprisingly for someone of his generation, he was fascinated with new processes and technology.”

Shortly after celebrating his 85th birthday with a party at the Chicago Yacht Club in 2005, he sat in his home and excitedly showed off his brand-new DVD, his first. It was titled, “The Eye is Never Filled,” a phrase that he remembers his mother saying to him repeatedly when he was very young. He told me then, “This is word jazz in morphing pictures” and described it as something that “looks like it was done under the influence of LSD.”

Nordine lost his wife in 2016 and 18 months ago suffered a stroke. “That kind of inhibited his ability to create,” said Ken Jr. “He was no longer able to use a computer, but he kept modestly active. He just slowed down a bit.
“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.”

Those ways are still, and ever, available, at wordjazz.com, and he is also survived by sons Kristan, a musician, and Kevin, a filmmaker; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned.”

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