Though often associated with the Beat Generation, Ken Nordine operated on his own wavelength, part absurdist humor, part poetry, part jazz. His real gift was that mellifluous voice, heard on a weekly radio program for more than 40 years, on albums of his self-created “word jazz,” and in collaborations with Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits and the Grateful Dead.

The magic voice of Ken Nordine was stilled, on February 16, 2019, leaving this planet at age 98.

For people of a certain generation, Nordine’s voice was ubiquitous. It was instantly recognizable, deep and rich, adding a light-hearted gravitas to whatever he was saying. His voice-over career was definitely a well-balanced two-sided calling. His life’s work was “word jazz”, a term he coined, but his bread and butter was commercial work, voicing ads (Taster’s Choice, Levi’s, etc.), movie trailers and narrating documentaries.

Though he was in his late eighties when we spoke back in 2008, Nordine was busy. Still working, still curious. I asked why he stayed so busy and he explained “Part of my sanity is to be preoccupied.” He also still had his mischievous sense of humor and made it clear that although he was often mentioned in company with the Beat generation, humor was the crucial difference.

“Someone tried to categorize what I was doing along with what was being done in San Francisco, you know with Howl and Allen Ginsberg, but there was a lot of angst in what they did. I was not so much into angst. I liked dark humor a little more. Like a guy trying to figure out what ‘nothing’ was.”

To understand that is to understand Ken Nordine.

When he spoke, he was in no rush. Sentences took their time coming out and were melodious.  He seemed to savor each word, and his end of our conversation seemed, in some ways, like a performance, but in a completely unpretentious way. He left me with the impression that he was unique and 100% for real. The way he heard sounds and music, the rhythm of his speech, his ability to observe the world and free associate his thoughts were all unique to Ken Nordine. They were the building blocks of word jazz.

Word Jazz

I asked him what was the first sound he could remember and, without hesitation, he said, “Fffsssssssssss fffsssssssssss.” It was the sound his mother, a nurse, had used to toilet train him at age nine months. She would hold him over the toilet (Nordine used the word “john”), make the sound, and he would urinate on command.

His first instrument was a violin given to him at age five, as a present for taking castor oil. But he considered his voice his real instrument.

“When puberty came in, my voice dropped. I really became preoccupied with the sound of the voice, because it was quite a change. Girls would say ‘Hey, you should be on the radio’ and of course at the age of puberty you listen to girls very closely. That’s why, with the word jazz, I think the sound of what I do very much as an instrument, and the thing I like about jazz with it is, with the structure of language, instead of being notes, it’s notes laced with words, the language that was used and the rhythms of the words.”

Someone tried to categorize what I was doing along with what was being done in San Francisco, you know with Howl and Allen Ginsberg, but there was a lot of angst in what they did. I was not so much into angst. I liked dark humor a little more. Like a guy trying to figure out what ‘nothing’ was.”

He attended The Northwestern School of Speech and flunked out, then got a job at the Board of Education radio station WBEZ (now the major NPR outlet in Chicago) working on programs that were pumped into Chicago schools. He used the WBEZ stationery to apply for jobs. He landed in Bay City, Michigan, making $30 a week hosting a show called Heatwave. Even then he could not help messing with the format. “I’d play two records at the same time. Phil Spitalny and His All-Girl Orchestra and Charlie Barnett with the sax wailing behind, and if you could pick out what the two records were, you’d get a free ticket to The Bijou Theater. The program director became quite angry with me.”

“When I left there, I said ‘The heck with this! I’m going to go to where it’s nice and warm.’ So I sent an acetate of my voice to three places. Hilo, Hawaii; Colorado Springs; and West Palm Beach. They all wanted me, but it was too far away to go to Hilo or to Colorado Springs, so I went to West Palm Beach. I drove an old guy down to Jacksonville and hitchhiked the rest of the way. I had a hell of a good time there because I had the night shift. I asked the engineer ‘What happens after the Star-Spangled Banner after you sign off?’ He said, ‘We turn the carrier off.’ I said, ‘Could you keep it on? We could put on a little sound effect or something.’ ‘Oh yeah’ he said, he was ready for that. So after the Star Spangled Banner, maybe a little pause and then I’d knock on a door, and have the door slowly creek open, figuring somebody left the radio on and it would scare the hell out of them. One night I put on doves cooing. I gave a talk at the high school and the teacher there said, ‘You know, I heard the transmitter cooling down the other day.’ I didn’t tell him a thing. I said ‘Goodness!’”

“I was down there for about a year and we started a union and, oh man, that was the end of that. They didn’t like that, but it was fun. I had a great time. Then I got a job in Chicago at an FM station, CBS, back to my hometown.”

Poor eyesight kept him from being drafted and he spent the war years filling the labor vacuum being “kicked upstairs” at CBS. After the war as the new medium of television was exploding, Nordine was right there.

Ken Nordine in his home studio in the late 1970s

“It was just beginning then, black and white, there was no color at first. I did a show called Faces In The Window which was on at midnight, after the used car salesman got off the air. He had a film and he put on his commercials, I guess he left town and took the money and ran. When the film was over I’d come on and I read with one camera on me, that’s all, just one, very close up and dim light, so I could hardly see what I was reading. I would do Poe and de Maupassant and Dostoyevsky. I’d read short stories that would scare the hell out of people. I found out later on that a lot of the kids would turn the lights off. The boys and girls they would get scared and they’d be hugging each other. So I was, in a way, a catalyst for romance or early sexual explorations.”

In the early 1950s, Nordine began experimenting in a Highland Park basement recording himself reciting, often extemporaneously, while cool jazz combos jammed behind him. This was the birth of word jazz, named by Nordine because “I love jazz, because jazz begins with an agreement among a group of players that the structure of the tune that they’re playing, that they all know what it is, that they give each other space and they take off on the melody, so that the only structure that they have, if you will, is the harmonic changes that are involved. Well, the same thing is true in the structure of language. You take an idea, it becomes a springboard for a flight of fancy.”

In 1955. bandleader Billy Vaughn called and asked Nordine to record the narration for his arrangement of “Shifting Whispering Sands,” a six-minute song/poem told from the point of view of a weary gold prospector. The record became a hit, and Vaughn’s label, Dot Records, asked Nordine if he had anything else and Nordine delivered some of the recordings he had been stockpiling. In 1957, Dot released the first word jazz album, boasting on the cover: ‘A somewhat new medium… WORD JAZZ.’

The Dot label was not the headquarters for the avant garde. They were the home of Pat Boone. Fortunately. they left Nordine alone.

“They didn’t know what to expect. They just let me go, let me swing and it was amazing because it caught on! It was very strange. I got a call from Bud Yorkin and Fred Astaire to be on a special. Fred Astaire danced to one of the cuts called ‘My Baby’, which was a play on the fact that baby is used so much in popular music ‘Hey baby,’ ‘I love my baby,’ ‘My baby loves me,’ and so Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase, a dancer that he had with him, they danced to the track and they called me out there. It’s now on YouTube and you can see me as I looked years ago, with dark hair and skinny.”

One of my favorite Ken Nordine albums is Colors which started out as commercials for a paint company. “They gave me three compunctions. They said ‘You have to mention the Fuller Paint Company, and you have to do a color, and then you have to say ‘A century of leadership in the chemistry of color’ at the end.’ So I had absolute freedom, so I picked the colors like yellow, blue, chartreuse. That was 1967 and the agencies were really looking for something new. They haven’t learned yet that freedom is a terrible thing to give to someone because in certain instances there was a fear that it would circumvent the agency.”

Did the records make money? “The records never made me rich in that sense. It was done at a time when the boys were in charge of a lot of things. Whenever a lot of money is involved, there’s always a crowd of people around it who are very helpful in seeing that the money is divided the way they would like it to be divided.”

How did he balance his commercial and artistic sides? “My mother was very religious and she said ‘Ken, you’ve got to serve God or Mammon,’ and I said ‘God’s nice, but Mammon you can make some money with,’ so I did try to please her by doing some things that were close to the heart and I tried to please the people I was working with by doing something that was tasteful and made money for me and help them. It was a ball.”

I found out later on that a lot of the kids would turn the lights off. The boys and girls they would get scared and they’d be hugging each other. So I was, in a way, a catalyst for romance or early sexual explorations.

He stayed in demand for years in the voice-over world, released many word jazz albums and for more than 40 years hosted a weekly word jazz radio show. In later years he collaborated with members of the Grateful Dead, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson and was Linda Blair’s vocal coach for the 1973 film The Exorcist.

I asked him what he had been up to lately. “Well, I was doing some research on how snowflakes are created. It’s funny, it’s a speck of dust usually, if it wasn’t for dirt there wouldn’t be any beautiful white snowflakes because in the clouds things are in colloidal suspension and there’s a lot of dust and each speck of dust, when moisture gets around it and the temperature is just right, will form one of four different kinds of crystals so they’re not all alike. It’s the damnedest thing. The white stuff falls down and covers up the ugly dirt so the winter looks a little better for a short amount of time until it goes to slush.”