Ken Nordine, Surreal Poet With a Jazz Beat, Is Dead at 98

Ken Nordine, Surreal Poet With a Jazz Beat, Is Dead at 98

Ken Nordine, who improvised poetry in a silky voice to cool, vibrant musical accompaniment, creating a form of storytelling that he called “word jazz,” and that brought him renown on radio and led to collaborations with Fred Astaire, Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and other artists, died on Feb. 16 in Chicago. He was 98.

His son Ken Jr. confirmed the death.

Mr. Nordine became wealthy doing voice-overs for television and radio commercials. But he found his passion in using his dramatic baritone to riff surreally on colors, time, spiders, bullfighting, outer space and dozens of other subjects. His free-form poems could be cerebral or humorous, absurd or enigmatic, and were heard on the radio and captured on records, one of which earned a Grammy nomination.

“Ken Nordine can pontificate on any small object and make it resonate with the profundity of consciousness and the euphony of a beautiful piece of music,” the critic Neil Strauss wrote in The New York Times in 1996, previewing a performance by Mr. Nordine at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan.

Mr. Nordine spent time in Chicago nightclubs in the 1950s reciting poems by writers like T. S. Eliot and Omar Khayyam, accompanied by jazz musicians. But when he realized that many of the same people kept returning to the clubs, he began to ad-lib new verses.

He felt that jazz was ideal for his stream-of-consciousness poetry.

“I like jazz for the principle of what jazz is: a flight of musical fantasy within structure,” he said in an interview for the book “Incredibly Strange Music, Volume II” (1994). “I’m trying to do the same thing verbally: take off on a theme so you become tangential and transcendent at the same time.”

His first album, “Word Jazz” (1957), included a romantic hipster poem, “My Baby,” which attracted the attention of Bud Yorkin, the producer of the 1959 television special “Another Evening With Fred Astaire.” A finger-snapping Mr. Astaire danced sensuously with Barrie Chase on a nightclub set while Mr. Nordine recited his words offstage and a combo played jazz:

I couldn’t help myself, it was love for sure.

I picked my baby up, danced over to the stage

And I told the leader: “Leader, this is my baby”

He just said, “Crazy!”

My baby gave him a special look like she does

He could see my baby had eyes to swing.

Speaking to the audience, Mr. Astaire declared that Mr. Nordine had “invented a new kind of contemporary beat.”

Mr. Nordine told The Chicago Tribune that the goal of his poetry was to “make people think about their thinking and feel about their feeling, but even more important to think about their feeling and feel about their thinking.”

He brought that approach to the inner life of colors in a series of 10 poems commissioned in the early 1960s by one of his radio voice-over clients, the Fuller Paint Company. He preferred it when his clients let him improvise, rather than read from a prepared script, and his paint ads were indistinguishable from his poetry, except that they were intended to sell products.

He subsequently released an album, “Colors” (1966), which included odes to 34 colors, including those he did for the paint company.

In “Blue,” he wrote about how blue stopped feeling so blue:

But then, on a Thursday of a year,

Who can remember except blue?

Something sudden happened.

Blue went as high as sky is high,

Flipped fathoms up,

Began to swing easy, sensibly.

Kenneth Edward Nordine was born on April 13, 1920, in Cherokee, Iowa, and moved with his parents, Swedish immigrants, to Chicago when he was 3 or 4 years old. His father, Nore, was an architect who built apartment buildings, and his mother, Theresia (Danielson) Nordine, was a real estate investor and sculptor.

By his teenage years, people had taken notice of Ken’s smooth baritone and suggested that he work in radio. He took their advice and, after attending the University of Chicago, got a job working the mimeograph machine at WBEZ, a local station.

He later had radio jobs in other cities, but by the mid-1940s Mr. Nordine was back in Chicago. He hosted radio and television shows there, including “Faces in the Window,” in which he recited works by Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant and Honoré de Balzac.

“It was just him, one camera and stark lighting,” Ken Nordine Jr. said in a telephone interview. “He scared the heck out of people.”

Mr. Nordine’s reputation for improvisational poetry grew with the release of “Word Jazz” and “Son of Word Jazz” in 1957, which led to a “Word Jazz” radio show on WBBM in Chicago in the 1960s, followed by a run on NPR in the ’70s and a long-running syndicated show. Repeats are now carried at midnight on Sundays on WBEZ and will continue to be broadcast.

For decades Mr. Nordine’s voice was heard on radio and television commercials for, among other products, Levi’s jeans, Taster’s Choice coffee, Chevrolet, the Chicago Blackhawks, Motorola and the wines made by Ernest and Julio Gallo.

He adapted one of his poems, “Flibberty Jib,” in 1971 for an animated commercial for Levi’s that told of a tall stranger — with eyes “that could look right down to the bottom of you” — who introduced townspeople to colorful pants with flared legs, made from Dacron polyester.

“I’m wearing Levi’s,” Mr. Nordine said, deliberately and a bit ominously. “Dull has gone out of style.”

His poetry found a fan in Mr. Garcia, the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead, and in the early 1990s Mr. Nordine began an association with the band when it invited him to record “Devout Catalyst” (1992) at its studio. Mr. Garcia and a group that included the bassist Jim Kerwin and the mandolinist David Grisman backed Mr. Nordine’s poems; two of the cuts featured collaborations with Mr. Waits.

Also in the 1990s, Mr. Nordine began to add a new element to his verbal improvisations: Working from his elaborate home studio, he used a computer to introduce distorted, psychedelic visuals to recordings of his poems, which he posted on YouTube.

In addition to Ken Jr., Mr. Nordine is survived by two other sons, Kristan and Kevin; nine grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and a sister, Karen Bothwell. His wife, Beryl (Vaughan) Nordine, a radio and film actress, died in 2016.

In 2015, Mr. Nordine collaborated with Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde multimedia artist, at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco. They improvised — he participated via Skype, with his face projected onto a giant screen — as hosts of a call-in show called “Mr. and Mrs. God.”

“It was the greatest fun,” Ms. Anderson said by telephone. She recalled listening to Mr. Nordine’s “crazy little vignettes” while growing up in Chicago in the 1960s and how happy she had been to become his friend in the 1990s.

Mr. Nordine, she said, “was a combination of a fellow artist and a crazy uncle.”

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