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.