Remembering Ken Nordine

The ambitious radio personality created his own form of expression, called “word jazz,” to properly accomodate his musical voice and artistic ambitions.

Language is music. A conversational voice has its own cadence and mode. Laughter can be melodic. Poems, when sung, become lyrics. Of course we all know the difference between singing and talking, but when you think of the basic definition of music as organized sound, it increasingly becomes a distinction without a difference. Ken Nordine, who died at age 98, blurred those boundaries. He invented something he termed “word jazz” and made it a lifelong expression. He wrote, performed, and produced albums and radio shows, all featuring his extraordinarily resonant voice. “He also had such a special mind,” his son Ken Jr. remembered, “that enabled him to deconstruct the world and put it back together in the most compelling ways.”

Nordine was born in Cherokee, Iowa on April 23, 1920. He started working at WBEZ radio in 1938 before leaving Chicago to pick up radio announcing gigs in other states, eventually returning to make ads. He had a comfortable career ahead of him even then, possessing the rich, sonorous bass preferred for mid-century voiceovers—but Nordine was altogether more subversive, chafing at what he called the “banal, happy, didn’t bother anybody” commercial gigs that made up his day job.

Word jazz was a happy accident. In 1956, Nordine was appearing at a club called the Lei Aloha on the North Side of Chicago, reciting the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and T.S. Eliot while being backed up by two jazz musicians. “The same crowd came every Monday,” Nordine remembered, “so I couldn’t do the same poems over and over, so I started to ad lib.” This is something any improvisational musician would do.

I always liked music, particularly jazz,” Nordine told an interviewer, “and it became more interesting to me when they forgot the theme and they would go flying off in their imaginary and wonderful choruses, making variations on that theme, and within the structure of its harmony and the changes. So I tried to do the same thing with words.”

Much of what followed in Nordine’s career was deeply musical, with his voice as principal soloist in a room full of instrumental improvisors. “So if I’m doing something, as I was the other day, about the arachnid family, I’ll say to the musician, ‘You can be the web, and you can play the attitude of the spider waiting for some food to come by,’” Nordine told Tape Op in 2000.

So each musician brings to the fantasy whatever they feel is appropriate. Or, in another way, I’ll say, “Hey, let’s get a good groove going.” And then I’ll do something that fits with that groove metrically. Because I work with metrics pretty much. For example, the spider thing I was working on is a 6/5 rhythm. So I knew that would work with some of the things the percussionist was doing. He did a wonderful thing that sounded like the light coming off of the web. I’d say, “It’s a good year for spiders,” and he’d go, tchi-tchi-tchi … “Or so it seems. Incessantly weaving such gossamer schemes.” … ur-ah-ur “It should make one wonder what blueprint within instinctively causes the spider to spin.” … phew-shew-phew. That sort of thing. It’s really an empathic relationship between the musicians’ hearing and my hearing, so there’s room for them and there’s room for what I do. One of the beautiful things about jazz music is that when it really works each of the players allows room for the others.

His first solo album, Word Jazz, was released in 1957. It was without precedent. Other successful versions followed: Son of Word Jazz, Love Words, Next!. Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase danced to Nordine’s song “My Baby” on television. Nordine hung out with Bop trumpet player Clifford Brown and vanguard comedian Lenny Bruce. When his record label dropped him in 1960, he doubled down on the hip. He said his 1967 album Colors “was written in one day and recorded the same day. I wrote them as we were doing it…With a small group of musicians, you don’t have to have extensive charts and arrangements.” The album was inspired by a line Nordine ad-libbed for a commercial:  “The Fuller Paint Company invites you to stare with your ears at yellow.”

A few years later, Nordine was flown to Hollywood to teach 13-year-old actress Linda Blair how to speak backwards for The Exorcist. (He later sued because he said he wasn’t paid properly for his work on the movie, and then received a settlement.) “‘Bullshit’ backwards,” he noted, “is ‘tea-sloob’.” In 1971 he made a surreal television commercial for Levi’s Jeans—a kind of apocalyptic animated fable which featured plaid bell bottom pants—and did it again in 1983, this time with primitive computer animation.

Nordine was the perfect transitional figure between rapidly changing cultural norms: the buttoned-down 1950s authoritative announcer intoning counter culture free association.

The ensuing years saw collaborations with other musicians: Nordine worked with The Grateful Dead (they’re his backing band on 1991s Devout Catalyst) and Tom Waits—who described Nordine’s voice as a cross between “the guy with the pitchfork in your head saying go ahead and jump, and the ambulance driver who tells you you’re going to pull through”—as well as doing several hundred voiceover gigs a year and broadcasting his syndicated radio show.

When asked at the age of 90 what kept him going, Nordine said, “I have no stress, my ego is under control, I know there’s so much to prove I’ll never be able to prove any of it.”

Ken Nordine lives on. You can hear his inventive soundscape editing carried forward with Radiolab—strange, almost subconscious sounds playing under cut-up, conversational outtakes—and his wordy “wonder wandering” in Laurie Anderson’s works like “Language Is a Virus (From Outer Space).” Anderson first heard Nordine when she was 15. “It changed my life,” she said. “I just thought…that’s the greatest way to tell stories.”

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel