Word Jazz Pioneer Ken Nordine Has Passed Away At Age 98

Posted by Billyjam, February 16, 2019 09:39pm | Post a Comment

The golden voiced, word jazz pioneer Ken Nordine died this morning at age 98 at his North Side Chicago home as confirmed by his son earlier today.  Nordine's familiar sounding, deep commanding voice was one that many in previous decades knew from his voice-over work on Hollywood movie trailers and national radio and TV commercials. Examples include his voice-over of the trippy animated 1971 Levi’s jeans TV ad seen below. But Nordine’s legacy will be best remembered beyond the commercial realm, and for his jazz radio and spoken word jazz recording career.  Although it was thanks to his TV and radio work, in particular an early sixties paint radio commercial voice-over,  that most would first be exposed to his "word jazz" creation. Many recent decade music listeners would first hear Nordine via the numerous modern day artists who have sampled him.

Word-jazz was something Nordine initially crafted in the mid-fifties during the beat era and showcased with his 1957 debut album Word Jazz that he recorded with the Fred Katz Group for the Dot record label. WIthin a year he released the sequel Son Of Word Jazz in a recording career that would span five decades and include several different record labels such as San Francisco's now defunct Asphodel Records

With a smooth deep voice made for radio, Nordine’s distinctive baritone voice made him the hero of radio announcers everywhere. Not surprisingly then that Nordine was on the on-air staff of Chicago’s jazz radio station WBEZ for four decades. His soothing vocal stylings also made him a highly revered and unique recording artist whose recording career, that spanned the mid fifties up until 2005, boasts a back-catalog of 15 albums plus numerous contributions to others’ projects as well as various compilations. Nordine albums that have been found at Amoeba (they sell out fast so you got to snap them up when you see them whether on CD or vinyl) include Word Jazz: The Complete 1950's Recordings, Colors and Upper Limbo.  Nordine also recorded with such high profile artists as David Bowie, Tom Waits, and The Grateful Dead who also released some of his albums on their label. In fact Nordine in 1993 credited Jerry Garcia (who passed away two years later) for “renewing” his career.

On Nordine’s 1993 Grateful Dead Records label released jazz/spoken word album Upper Limbo he was joined by a a five part music ensemble that featured his son musician and author Kristan Nordine on Moog and guitar. In addition to Kristan (often listed as Kris) fellow sibling Ken Nordine Jr. has done studio engineering for releases by his father.

That old expression about a true professional voice artist been able to make even reading the phone book sound engaging was true of Nordine. HIs voice was the type that made you stop and listen to every soothing syllable he uttered. Perhaps one of the best examples of this was his 1966 album Colors that can be heard below in full via YouTube audio-only video. That fan favorite album of Nordine's has an interesting (and telling) backstory. It was the result of radio listeners been so enchanted by his voice as part of a (paint colors) ad campaign in 1964 for the Fuller Paint Company that they demanded more by calling up radio stations to replay the ad (another rare example of radio listeners actually requesting a commercial was three decades later during short-lived early 90's St. Ides beer campaign featuring various popular rappers of the day including Ice Cube and Wu-Tang).

In the case of Nordine in the mid sixties, he satisfied his demanding public by going back to the drawing board and building upon the original concept; rewriting and expanding the Colors idea and fleshing it out into a full album; one simply dedicated to various colors.  A rare hard to find release, out of San Francisco, is the  7" single that contained those original Fuller Paint ads that inspired the album Colors.

Later musical generations that gravitated toward that mid sixties album included Nordine fan Mike Patton who played it before Mr. Bungle shows back in 2000, and emcee Aesop Rock. The latter hip-hop artist and his producer Dub-L sampled Colors for Aesop Rock's 2003 release Music for Earthworms:The Instrumentals on the track “Bad Samaritan."  In fact Nordine’s voice has been a frequent go to source for many hip-hop and EDM DJs and producers over the years. The list of those who've sampled him on their records include Meat Beat Manifesto, The Orb, DJ Food and Kid Koala.

The Canadian turntablist/producer, who recently released Music To Draw To: Io LP, sampled Nordine’s 1970 Flowering Conversations album track "Ode to Houseplants" for his track "Music for Morning People" on the 2000 Ninja Tune album Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.  No doubt with news of Nordine's passing we can expect more samples of his voice to surface on new recordings, as well as reissues of his back catalog's out-of-print titles.

Ken Nordine’s voice over of 1971 Levi’s jeans TV commercial .

Ken Nordine 2010 interview/home studio tour c/o his Chicago jazz station WBEZ 91.5FM

Ken Nordine 1968 groundbreaking Colors album

Relevant Tags

Levi's Jeans Commerical 1971 (1), Colors (1), Ken Nordine R.i.p. (1), Grateful Dead (21), Asphodel (1), Jerry Garcia (5), Kid Koala (5), Mr Bungle (1), Word Jazz (1), Wbez Chicago (1), Aesop Rock (19), Fuller Paint Commercial 1964 (1)