Ken Nordine’s voice was tailor-made for late night radio. His unparalleled, smooth baritone guided WBEZ listeners through the show Word Jazz for more than 40 years.
Nordine died Saturday at the age of 98, his son Ken Nordine, Jr. said.
“He had a very special mind, an amazing way of looking at the world and making his own sense out of it,” his son said. “I think it made sense to a lot of people because a lot of people really enjoyed listening to him.”
Word Jazz is a mix of spoken word, poetry and sound design. In a 2000 interview with Nordine, WBEZ’s Steve Edwards described the show as a “delicious buffet of sound portraits, mind-altering moodscapes and irregular riffs.”
In that 2000 interview, Nordine told Edwards the idea for the show started when he would read memorized poetry live twice a week at a club on Chicago’s North Side. Musicians played jazz behind him.
Nordine said the live show built a following, telling Edwards, “the same crowd came every Monday so I couldn’t do the same poems over and over so I started to ad lib.”
The concept first found a home on Chicago radio station WBBM.
Nordine, Jr. said that show was called Nordine Now, and was engineered by the legendary producer and engineer Bruce Swedien, who also worked with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.
Nordine hosted greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald on the WBBM show. But, he said with a laugh in the 2000 interview, after 12 episodes, another host took over so he took off.
Word Jazz started airing on WBEZ in the 1970s, according to former program director Ken Davis.
Nordine said his day job as the voice behind “banal, happy, didn’t bother anybody” TV commercials led him to create Word Jazz.
Nordine’s commercial credits included well-known brands, like this trippy 1971 Levi’s ad.
Nordine, Jr. said his father really enjoyed doing commercials for the denim brand because he “had a lot of creative freedom and did some kind of cutting-edge stuff.”
He also recorded with musicians such as The Grateful Dead, Tom Waits and David Bowie.
And for more than 50 years, it was Nordine’s voice that welcomed moviegoers to Chicago’s International Film Festival.
Nordine was born in Iowa and moved to Chicago when he was young. He first took a job in radio at WBEZ in the 1940s, when the station was owned by the Chicago Board of Education. He had lived in his Edgewater house with his family since the 1950s. He and his son worked together doing recordings in the third-floor studio of their North Side home.
Nordine said ultimately, his passion was for words. He told Edwards in 2000, “there’s music in the rhythm of the way great writing is done.”
A decade later, when Nordine was 90 years old, Edwards asked the artist, writer and storyteller what kept him going. Nordine didn’t hesitate with his answer: “I have no stress, my ego is under control, I know there’s so much to prove, I’ll never be able to prove any of it.”
Nordine is survived by three children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Carrie Shepherd is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.