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Remembering Ken Nordine And His 'Word Jazz'


And we're sad to say we lost one of America's great voices over the weekend. Ken Nordine died Saturday at the age of 98 years old. He had this velvet baritone voice. He called his style of storytelling word jazz.


KEN NORDINE: (Vocalizing) Wants to know that I love my baby, and my baby loves me. A short time ago, we went out together into a place called Far Out. Up the limbo...


Nordine was inspired to create word jazz by going to poetry readings twice a week on Chicago's north side where the performances were often set to music. He told member station WBEZ how much he loved coming up with impromptu poetry supported by live improvisers.


NORDINE: When musicians play, they know the changes in a given tune. They know how much space they're going to give each other. So there's a mutual agreement, well, we know the structure. And within that structure, they loosely do whatever they want to do. And they - if they're really with it, they never do it the same way twice.

MARTIN: Nordine's first album of word jazz came out back in 1957.

GREENE: And his topics were really diverse, covering everything from the power of thought as in his piece "The Mind Reader" (ph).


NORDINE: (Vocalizing) What were you doing the other day? I kind of forget. Why? What do you mean? Well, I was trying to read someone's mind. Oh, yeah? Who are you taking lessons from? He's a guru.

GREENE: He also covered the theme of truth, which he explored in "Blinko, The Truth-Telling Machine" (ph).


NORDINE: (Vocalizing) There was a guy who had a strange problem - got hung up on truth. Oh, what truth was that? Oh, the big truth. Oh, the one you have to swear to - the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. You see...

MARTIN: Nordine started his radio career in 1938 running a mimeograph machine at Chicago's WBEZ. He moved on to announcing at Florida and Michigan stations before moving back to Chicago. He hosted the show "Word Jazz" there for 40 years.

GREENE: Nordine also voiced radio and TV commercials like this 1971 ad for Levi's.


NORDINE: There was a stranger who came into our town. He was tall and had eyes that could look right to the bottom of you. We might've welcomed him except for one thing - his pants.

MARTIN: He was hired to coach Linda Blair's vocals for the film "The Exorcist," and he collaborated with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Tom Waits and David Bowie.

GREENE: Ken Nordine. He is survived by his three children and his 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.