Wednesday, February 09, 2005

When Colors Speak: Ken Nordine's Jazzy Jingo

("Stare with your ears")

One might wonder what the first sounds were to emanate from the mouth of Kenneth Edward Nordine when he was born on April 13, 1920 in Cherokee, Iowa, a small burg in the northwestern corner of the Hawkeye State. Nordine emerged in the public ear in the early 1940s as a radio announcer for the Chicago Blackhawks ball team. His resonant, deep brown base deliveries proved so popular that Nordine soon found himself doing commercial voice-overs for outfits such as Levis jeans, and Taster's Choice coffee. The compelling quality and clarity of Nordine's vocals proved to be money in the bank for any companies which hired him.

Comfortable with the advent of television broadcasting in the 1950s, Nordine developed a cultishly popular late-night Chicago program called Faces In The Dark in which he would read the works of Balzac, Lovecraft, Poe, and Guy de Maupassant. Conjunctly he hosted a weekly music series called Jazz Showcase which, no doubt, influenced the development of his own original writings into spoken word recordings set to a backdrop of playful jazz.

Nordine's TV stint attraced the attention of Dot records' A&R head, musician Billy vaughn. Vaughn enlisted the wort-meister as spoken accompanist on a piece called The Shifting, Whispering Sands, combining Nordine's Beat poet banter with Vaughn's ethereal instrumentation. The collaboration proved popular with commercial audiences and Vaughn brought Nordine back to add spoken poetry to plush-stringed standards. The result, an easy-listening LP called Love Words, catalyzed a measure of creative rebellion, from which sprang Nordine's legendary 1957 album Word Jazz, a cleverly verbose, visionary string of jazz-accompanied commentaries on the mangled, mundane pathologies of contemporary society.

Having unintentionally created a spoken-word classification and becoming the first victim of its stereoptypification, Nordine was called upon to recreate his success with Word Jazz, followed up with Next!, Son Of Word Jazz, and Word Jazz Vol. 2. The enervating effect drove Nordine back into the world of commercial voice-over work where he unexpectedly discovered his next measure of creative development.

In 1966, while working as an announcer for Fuller Paint Company, Nordine smashed the boundaries of commercialism with a full-spectrum recitation on the abstract, sensate qualities of color. What evolved was Colors, a critically-acclaimed, 34-track album which personnifies colors as living entities. Crimson is described as frenetic and driven, while magenta is flighty and playful. Blue yellow, and green engage in a turf war of sorts until they realize that they are all part of one another. Exotic hues and tones, such as cerise and nutria, vie for equality with the primary colors as age-old fables are woven into the storyline construct.

With each excerpt running around two minutes or less, the auditory effect for impatient, attention deficient American audiences, is one of near-instant gratification. When rarely lauded colors such as sepia, and ecru take a bow, the charismatic incisiveness of Nordine's words, coupled with lilting, throw-away jazz riffs, engages rather than alienates the novice listener. It is the complete synthesis of full-sensory stimulation.

Continuously sought and revered in avant-garde circles, Nordine became readily accessible to the public during a second broadcast career on National Public Radio's Word Jazz 1/2 show in the 1980s, acquiring a new generation of college-age fans and listeners who had missed his genius during the first few exposures. It was during this period that long-time admirers, the Grateful Dead, devised a plan involving Nordine's talents.

In 1991, Grateful Dead soundman Ken Healy, placed Nordine in a recording studio with Jerry Garcia, mandolin master David Grisman, pianist Howard Levy (of The Flecktones), Grisman band musicians Joe Craven and Jim Kerwin, and singer Tom Waits. The result, a recording called Devout Catalyst, was nominated for a 1992 Grammy as Best Spoken Word Recording. What followed, a series of public performances in such locales as Chicago, San Francisco (the 1992 San Francisco Jazz Festival), brought the direct public exposure and attention that Nordine had long deserved.

Nordine's career has also entered that cavernous expanse known as the film idustry, with appearances in such movies as the 1950 instructional short Developing Your Character (as "The Announcer"), 1967's Fearless Frank (as "The Stranger"), and special sound effects work on the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. But Nordine's most enjoyable self-professed contribution to the viewing experience was on the small screen when actor Fred Astair danced to the poet's work on the 1959 TV special Another Evening With Fred Astaire.

Nordine's own commentary on current project shows a tireless, unflagging energy ever intent on reinterpreting audio-art. "I’ve been working on these things called “Maybe the Moment”, which is an attempt to resurrect moments of time. The idea of “seizing the moment”, you know, to see how you were. But actually, the moment is like a bird in your hand that flies off in a blur. It’s that type of realization that time is probably just dimly remembered. I don’t know where that part of the brain is? Do you? There’s a little section there somewhere where all these things are stored in a strange way. Of course, if you’ve had any experience with Alzheimer’s, you’d see what a sad thing it is when cognition slips away. “I’ll never forget What’s-His-Name.” They really fall apart. Well, part of life, I guess, is falling apart. There was a great sculptor that nobody thought was great because of his subject matter. He made sculptures that would fall apart. They were strange Rube Goldberg-type things. And what would happen, right before your very eyes, over a period of, say, a month, the sculpture, because of the eccentricity of its motion, would fall apart. I guess what happened was that they [the art dealer] were trying to sell the damn things. But it was disconcerting to them, because by the time they found somebody who was interested in the thing it had fallen apart."

Currently, at age 85, Nordine is as active and wordy as ever. His 2001 CD release, A Transparent Mask, made with long-standing keyboardist-friend Howard Levy, recorded at the renowned Nuyorican Cafe in New York, is a 20-track testimony to Nordine's boundless energy and pursuit of artistry via the marriage of the spoken word and jazz. And a recent charity benefit appearance at Chicago's Metro, with legendary lady rocker Ronnie Spector (of the Ronettes), musicians David Amram, Graham Parker, Ivan Neville, and the Mekons' John Langford, enlists Nordine as one of the most ageless entertainers of the live performance circuit.

Ken Nordine Discography:

1955 - Passion in the Desert (FM) / 1963 (FM)
1957 - Word Jazz (Dot) / 1967 (Dot) / 1983 (MCA)
1958 - Son of Word Jazz (Dot)
1958 - Love Words (Dot) / 1959 (Dot)
1959 - My Baby (Dot)
1959 - Next! (Dot)
1959 - The Voice of Love (Hamilton)
1960 - Word Jazz Vol. 2 (Dot)
1966 - Colors (Philips) / 1995 (Asphodel)
1967 - Ken Nordine Does Robert Shure's Twink (Philips)
1968 - The Classic Collection: The Best of Word Jazz Vol. 3 (Dot)
1971 - How Are Things In Your Town? (Blue Thumb)
1972 - Ken Nordine (Blue Thumb)
1979 - Stare With Your Ears (Snail) / 1988 (Snail)
1984 - Triple Talk (Snail)
1986 - Grandson of Word Jazz (Snail)
1990 - Best of Word Jazz (Rhino)
1991 - Devout Catalyst (Grateful Dead)
1993 - Upper Limbo (Grateful Dead)
2001 - Transparent Mask (Asphodel)

Guest Appearances:

1955 - The Shifting Whispering Sands - Billy Vaughn (Dot)
1957 - Concert in the Sky - Teddy Phillips and His Orchestra (Decca)
1958 - Sounds In Space (RCA Victor)
1961 - Radio Rebus (US Army)
1968 - H.P. Lovecraft II - H.P. Lovercraft (Philips) - "Nothing's Boy"
1997 - Fun for the Whole Family - Lord Runningclam (Bottom Heavy) / 1998 (Moonshine Music) - "Faces in the Night" and "Flibberty Jib"
1998 - Sound Museum - Towa Tei (Elektra) - "The Sound Museum"
2000 - A Dub Plate of Food Vol. 2 - DJ Food (Ninja Tune)
2000 - Kaleidoscope - DJ Food (Ninja Tune) - "The Ageing Young Rebel"

Compilation tracks:

1959 - Deejay's Choice: 25 Top Album Performances on Dot (Dot) - "My Baby"
1959 - Excerpts from the Original Soundtrack of Another Evening with Fred Astaire (Chrysler Corp.) - "My Baby"
1965 - A Child's Introduction to the Classics (Childcraft/Wing) - "Barber of Seville"
1973 - Original Early Top 40 Hits (Paramount) - "The Shifting Whispering Sands, Part 1" w/Billy Vaughn
1989 - Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (A&M)
1991 - Train of Thought: Stories, Music & Eclectic Audio Entertainment, Vol.1 (Com Audio) - "Mr. City"
1992 - The Beat Generation Box Set (Rhino) - "Reaching Into In" and "Hunger Is From"
1993 - A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute (Koch) - "A Cage Went in Search of a Bird"
1994 - Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 2 (Asphodel) - "Flesh," "Green" and "Yellow"
1995 - All Day Thumbsucker Revisited (Blue Thumb/GRP) - "Roger"
1995 - Chop Suey Rock (Hot & Sour) - "Hot" as Ken Nordine and His Kinsmen
1995 - Monster Sounds And Boppin' Tracks (Marginal) - "Strollin' Spooks"
1997 - Closed On Account of Rabies: Poems and Tales of Edgar Allen Poe (Mercury) - "The Conqueror Worm"
1999 - The Annoying Music Show's The Annoying Music Show CD
2000 - The Annoying Music Show's The Annoying Music Show Holiday CD - "Ken Nordine Says Jim Nayder's Name"
2002 - The Best of the Beat Generation (Rhino) - "My Baby"

Related recordings:

194? - Incredible But True Radio (Columbia)