Word Jazz's Ken Nordine honored at 2011 Chicago International Film Festival

October 10, 2011

If you're Ken Nordine and you've spent a lifetime producing iconic TV commercials, writing poetry, publishing books, creating art, inventing Word Jazz (broadcast Sundays at Midnight on WBEZ) and otherwise blowing our minds through path-breaking aural riffs, what do you do for an encore?

You bask in the spotlight of the 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival.

This year, the fest will honor the 91-year-old Word Jazz host and creator Tuesday evening during a special on-stage interview and film screening with festival director Michael Kutza.

The event, dubbed An Evening with Ken Nordine, is open to the public and will feature Nordine's reflections about his lengthy career, as well as an audience Q&A.  In addition, the event promises to screen some of Nordine's video works, including his memorable Levi's ads as well as some of the many acclaimed trailers he's produced for the festival over the years.

"I'm really flattered," said Nordine during a phone conversation Monday. "It's going to be really nice."

Ken's been a personal inspiration since I was a young kid growing up in Kansas City, falling asleep to the sounds of Word Jazz on KCUR-FM on Thursday evenings, wondering where his dreams began and mine would end. And during my years in Chicago, I've come to know him as both a colleague at WBEZ and as a friend.  At 91, his once towering frame has come down a few floors, but his voice is as resonant - and his mind is as nimble - as ever.

For those who don't know, Ken's been "the voice of the Chicago International Film Festival" for 46 years.  He says the relationship began when Kutza came across one of the avant-garde visual treatments he was applying to his well-known radio commercials for the Fuller Paint Company inspired by the various colors in the spectrum.

"Michael asked, 'Would you do something like that for us?'," recalled Ken. "And I said 'Sure'."

And thus began an annual collaboration that's covered every year of the festival but the first.  During that time, Ken's own creative musings have led to far-out places and concepts.  One of his favorite trailers was the one he produced for the festival's 8th year, shot in collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry.

It features a row of numbered eggs, seven cracked and an eighth yet to hatch, accompanied by voice-over sounds of Nordine struggling to exit the remaining shell.  But the filming wasn't as straightforward as it might seem.  Because it actually takes a chick several hours after hatching to develop its fluffy, yellow coat, Nordine and crew had to improvise.

"We had to put the chick back in the egg," Ken remembers. "And we did it in such a way that the chick got out and walked off stage right on cue."

That trailer and many of Ken's other visual treatments will be among those screened Tuesday, including Quatrains of Thought with the late Jerry Garcia.  Some are from Ken's many new multimedia projects, called Image Jazz, in which he combines words with computer-generated images.

"Radio's power is that the illustrations are done in the head of the listener," he says. "But I wanted to see if I could aid and abet that - especially with poetry."

Last year, we had the pleasure of spending time with Ken and his wife Beryl at their North Side home and studio to learn more about his life - and his creative process.  Here's the result:

An Evening with Ken Nordine, takes place Tuesday evening October 11th at pm at AMC River East in Chicago.