RIP Jazz Storyteller Ken Nordine

Written by

Ken Nordine, voiceover artist and the creator of an art form called word jazz, recently died at the ripe old age of 98. His voice was truly one for all seasons. He could be the voice of god or the voice of doom. Due to his vocal ability he was sought out and worked with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Tom Waits, David Bowie, and others. His syndicated Word Jazz radio show on NPR ran for an astonishing four decades. I doubt even Darth Vader could out-do Nordine’s basso profundo.

I learned about Ken Nordine from his 1957 album for Dot Records called, yes, Word Jazz. I first heard it at my high school friend Josh Pryor’s house in the early 1960’s. Josh was a member of our surf club called The Chickens of the Sea, and all the members had to be into music, especially jazz. The album featured Ken Nordine reading clever, quirky, and fun stories, backed by cellist Fred Katz’s combo. I found it funny as hell and utterly original. According to his Chicago Tribune obituary, Nordine started ad-libbing stories one night in his native Chicago when he was giving a reading of T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe poetry and ran out of poems to read. What did he do? He decided to improvise, and word jazz was born.

I loved Nordine’s stories and used to play them Morning Becomes Eclectic. I want to share three of my favorite vignettes from the 1957 album, which was later reissued by Hip-0-Select in 2007 in a two CD set called You’re Getting Better: The Word Jazz Dot Masters. The tracks are “My Baby,” with its humorous ending, “What Time Is It,” which reminds me of the blind woman who called during my Café LA show every weekend asking us what time it was, and finally, “The Vidiot,” which could be updated to today’s world addressing people who are addicted to their smart phones. RIP Ken Nordine.

 “My Baby”:

“What Time Is It”:

 “The Vidiot”