Ken Nordine, 'Word Jazz' Creator, Dies at 98

Ken Nordine, the famed 'Word Jazz' creator, died Feb. 16. (Dot Records)

Ken Nordine, the wildly creative mind behind a series of Word Jazz albums and the long-running Word Jazz radio show, died Saturday at age 98, WBEZ reports.

Nordine's instantly recognizable vocal delivery—a rich basement tone that carried equal parts omen and humor—was a favorite of hipsters, radio listeners, jazz fans, poets, and college stoners, particularly during a run of surreal albums starting in the 1950s. Unusual song titles like "I Used to Think My Right Hand Was Uglier Than My Left" or "Flibberty Jib" became vehicles for Nordine's improvisational approach to poetry, often backed by a small jazz combo.

In the 1970s, Nordine brought a radio show called Word Jazz to Chicago public radio station WBEZ, after a short stint at WBBM. It stayed a staple of WBEZ's programming for over 40 years. According to WBEZ’s Steve Edwards, the show maintained a “delicious buffet of sound portraits, mind-altering moodscapes and irregular riffs.”

Nordine, with his resonant voice, got his start in commercial advertising, an arena that proved dull and banal to the artist who would later collaborate with Tom Waits and David Bowie. One client he stayed with was Levi's, then based in San Francisco, which he said gave him more creative freedom.

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As a voice actor, Nordine's jobs spanned unusual territory. Muppet creator Jim Henson adapted his 1957 track "Where Hunger is From" for a strange segment on his first television series Sam and Friends. Nordine also worked with autor Maurice Sendak on Sesame Street in the 1970s—the same decade he served as vocal coach to Linda Blair for the horror film The Exorcist.

The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia was among many who heard Nordine's Word Jazz albums as a teenager and was opened to the possibilities of the human mind. "It was like a religious experience," Garcia once said. "It was not only a completely different way of thinking, but a fantastic combination of words and music." (Garcia collaborated with Nordine on a 1990 release, Devout Catalyst.)

Nordine was born in Iowa, and moved to Chicago young, making the city his longtime home. He is survived by three children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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