Word Jazz is a phrase reportedly coined by voice-over artist Ken Nordine
. It's difficult to properly explain without diminishing its importance, ramifications, or cheapen the experience of ..well, experiencing it. It falls somewhere between standup comedy and beatnik poetry. It's a way of telling a story with unpredictable elements happening around the storyteller that perpetuates a condition of excitement and awe-inspiring wonder. It's taking the intimacy of communication and sharing it with a wider audience, through the use of modern technology as well as more mundane and lowtech methods. Keeping communication simple while simultaneously throwing caution to the wind and bending the rules of thought and feeling.
Ken Nordine is perhaps one of the greatest recorded voices in history. In fact even if you don't know the name, odds are you've heard his voice. He's done everything from commercials to performing with The Grateful Dead. With Word Jazz, Nordine took his own talents and experience to the next level. He used his vocal chords in the same way Jerry Garcia used his guitar or Louis Armstrong used his trumpet; as an instrument. Sometimes the words were paramount. Sometimes not. His voice could turn from icy hot to apple butter to a stained glass window in less than a single exhalation of breath. He'd record his voice as he improvised monologues or read from scripts, sometimes having jazz musicians add to the background and sometimes flying solo. In 1966 Ken Nordine accepted a challenge of taking every color of paint available from the catalog of Fullers Paint (they were kind of like Sherwin-Williams only much less successful) at the time and performed improvisational pieces about what each color felt like. The project, called Colors can still be found today if you know where to look. Other fantastic works of his include Flibberty Jib, Sound Museum, Noxt, and Reaching Into In.
His work is still enjoyed and studied even today, and countless others have learned from his example, and in some ways even tried to emulate him. One of the few more successful examples is the group 2NU who can be found online at mp3.com/2nu. Word Jazz is not limited to Ken Nordine. Anyone can do it, although no one will ever match his extraordinary skill. The difficulty is that it's simply not profitable to do. There's no money in it. It's not top 40 fodder. Even in the 50s and 60s when Nordine was at his peak, he never aquired more than a cult following for it, mostly centered in California. Some say poetry slams are a direct descendant of Nordine's experimentation, but he would be fast to say that storytelling is ancient, and in some ways he did nothing new. However, he took the ancient rites and rituals of storytelling and dragged them kicking and screaming into the 20th century. So too must we all do the same thing as we enter the 21st century.
Word Jazz Lives!