Ken Nordine, Chicago creator of ‘word jazz’ who had a voice that ‘could give you the chills,’ dies at 98
By Rick Kogan
Feb 16, 2019 at 2:00 pm
Before you read the words written below about the life and times and accomplishments of a man named Ken Nordine, who died Saturday at his North Side home at the age of 98, it would be a good idea for you to listen to whatever you can find at www.wordjazz.com.
What you will discover is the one-and-only voice of Ken Nordine, one of the few people in the history of radio to use the medium to its fullest potential, rather than as a forum for blather, confrontation, inanities and noisy nonsense. He made a kind of vocal music as the voice of thousands of commercials and as the force behind a new art form he created and called “word jazz.”
You may never have heard the Ken Nordine name, but there is no doubt you have heard him. He was often referred to simply as “The Voice,” and you will read elsewhere that he possessed “the voice of God.” As complimentary as that may be, it is hyperbole. Nordine’s voice was as distinctive as any, but it also carried a palpable and unforgettable humanity. For the Chicago Blackhawks, he gave voice to these four unforgettable words — “Cold steel on ice” — that remain firmly embedded in local minds.
Those many hockey commercials were crafted by Chicago’s Coudal Partners advertising/marketing firm through the 1990s and into the next century. Kevin Guilfoile, now a successful novelist and screenwriter (castofshadows.net), was intimately involved in the process.
“Working with Ken was a thrill and an inspiration,” Guilfoile said Saturday. “He was a one-of-a-kind master poet, performer and producer — one of those rare people with a brilliant singular vision and also the creative and technical chops to make that vision a reality all by himself. There was something so pure about his art.
“He was also a pleasure to work with. When I heard the news of his death, the first thing I did was call (firm president) Jim Coudal, and Jim said, ‘There was nothing like answering the phone when Ken called.’ That’s so true. Just hearing your name said by that voice could give you chills.”
Nordine was born on April 13, 1920, in Cherokee, Iowa, the son of Theresia and Nore Nordine. His father was an architect/builder, and some of his work sparkled along the lakefront during our 1933-34 World’s Fair. This is where the family settled and where Ken attended what is now Lane Technical College Preparatory High School and the University of Chicago.
He started work in 1938, making $15 a month running a mimeograph machine at the studios of WBEZ, when that radio station programmed exclusively for the public schools. He then moved on to announcing jobs at stations in Florida and Michigan before returning here to become a staff announcer for WBBM-FM and to start making radio commercials.
One writer described his voice as an instrument that “muses and oozes like molten gold.”
In 1945, he married Beryl Vaughan, also a talented voice artist on such old radio program as the “Lone Ranger” and, for a time, was a Hollywood actress.
They settled into a home on the North Side and raised three sons.
“My father loved Chicago, deeply,” said his eldest son, Ken Jr., who worked for many years as an engineer and producer alongside his dad. “He was ever turning down opportunities to work in New York or Los Angeles.”
As successful as Nordine’s announcing and commercial work was, he was creatively restless and drawn to more adventurous vocal avenues. One night in 1956, he was reciting the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe for musicians Johnny Frigo and Dick Marx at a Wilson Avenue club called the Lei Aloha. He ran out of poems and started to improvise. Thus was born what he called “word jazz,” a concept that would go on to spawn a dozen record albums, a syndicated radio show and make him a legend.
In 1990, Nordine accepted an invitation from Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to perform with them at a New Year’s Eve concert. He would also collaborate with David Bowie, Tom Waits and many others in a late-life career that compelled one writer to call him “an underground hipster for the ages.”
None of this went to his head. “He was just the loveliest guy,” Guilfoile said. “And surprisingly for someone of his generation, he was fascinated with new processes and technology.”
Shortly after celebrating his 85th birthday with a party at the Chicago Yacht Club in 2005, he sat in his home and excitedly showed off his brand-new DVD, his first. It was titled, “The Eye is Never Filled,” a phrase that he remembers his mother saying to him repeatedly when he was very young. He told me then, “This is word jazz in morphing pictures” and described it as something that “looks like it was done under the influence of LSD.”
Nordine lost his wife in 2016 and 18 months ago suffered a stroke. “That kind of inhibited his ability to create,” said Ken Jr. “He was no longer able to use a computer, but he kept modestly active. He just slowed down a bit.
“You hear so much about my dad’s special voice, but the thing was he knew how to use it. He also had such a special mind that enabled him to deconstruct the world and put it back together in the most compelling ways.”
Those ways are still, and ever, available, at wordjazz.com, and he is also survived by sons Kristan, a musician, and Kevin, a filmmaker; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned.