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Shades of Meaning

Ken Nordine's Amazing Technicolor Dream Job

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Everyone knows that in the beginning there was light. And then there was the word. But the words in this book spin that biblical verse on its head:

in the beginning--

oh, long before that--

when light was deciding

who should be in

and who should be out

of spectrum

yellow

was

in

trouble

Yellow's "trouble" has to do with being blue, and green with envy. Its tale has long been on the airwaves, courtesy of Ken Nordine, and its latest incarnation is in a children's book called Colors. The story began 35 years ago, when Nordine recorded ten radio spots for what was then the Fuller Paint Company.

"The only thing I had to say was a color," recalls Nordine, creator of the radio program Ken Nordine's Word Jazz, "and that there was 'a century of leadership in the chemistry of color' and that you should go to the Fuller Paint Company to get it. That's all."

But he couldn't stop there. An Iowa native who's called Chicago home since he was a preschooler, Nordine grew up playing string quartets with his Swedish architect father. He's long been known for his creative ads, especially campaigns for Levi's and Coors, and his recordings, including collaborations with such musicians as Jerry Garcia (who played on his 1992 album, Devout Catalyst, which was nominated for a Grammy as "Best Spoken Word Recording"). So he decided to ask violinist and bassist Johnny Frigo and pianist Dick Marx to improvise behind his vocals for the Fuller Paint spots. The musicians loved the creative freedom, and so did the audience, who called radio stations asking to hear the commercials again. They couldn't--the ad campaign ended after 13 weeks. But the odyssey of Nordine's colors was just beginning.

"I saw this lovely series die and I said, 'That's awful,'" recalls Nordine. "So I rewrote them." And he added another 24. Each color had a personality.

A favorite is "Amber," which finds Nordine musing "about the red light and the green light and how amber is in between the stop and go of traffic, and if we didn't have amber, there'd be an unbelievable traffic jam. People would be blowing their horns and angry at the world because there would be no order."

The stories also have moral heft. They speak of universal problems like racism. "Flesh" gets good airplay in Canada because it pans prejudice. "It tells people: 'Understand that the flesh is just the covering, the house of skin, that we have to get along with each other,'" explains Nordine, "and it does it in sort of a rock 'n' rollish sort of way."

In 1967 Mercury-Philips brought this universe of little moral tales out on an album. "But they didn't know what to do with it," says Nordine, who's made more than a dozen albums. "They put it in the bins and no one knew what bin to look in because it was 'spoken word'"--a category that didn't exist. So Nordine used the stories on Now Nordine, a show he did in the 60s for WBBM Radio, and again in the mid-70s on National Public Radio, which distributed his first 26 Word Jazz shows. He's since made more Word Jazz programs and distributed them himself by satellite.

Colors was rereleased by Asphodel Records in 1995, and then by Nordine himself. Teachers in California started using it to teach elementary school children about colors--and life.

Colors, which in its original form as an ad campaign won the International Broadcast Award, is a cousin to Word Jazz, whose name Nordine coined "to describe what I was doing." Those 88 shows have been airing internationally for decades, creating a widespread and enduring audience.

Word jazz began in the 50s at a Chicago club called the Lei Aloha, which played jazz on Mondays and Tuesdays and Hawaiian music the rest of the week. "But every Monday, the same crowd would show up," says Nordine. Backed by his musician buddies Frigo and Marx, he would recite poems by T.S. Eliot, A.E. Housman, and Walt Whitman. "I didn't want to bore 'em with the same poem. You can't get away with that. So that's when I sort of took off and made up stories as I was going and writing on the spot."

Fans and advertisers are drawn by Nordine's sonorous and majestic voice. What draws him is the word.

"The writing is where it begins, and even when I was doing commercials for other people, bodying forth and giving a good sound, I was thinking in terms of what I could do in the writing," he says. "People remember things that they read better than anything--better than pictures, better than sound. And I think part of it is that's the first thing that they learn as children. The ABCs, the language, the play of language, the little nursery rhymes, all the things they learn, that they see on the printed page. And so that's the reason you'll never lose books, thank God--real good writing, which I say, in a very special way, has a penetrating quality into the psyche, into the spirit of what we are."

Nordine's magic words attracted Fred Astaire, who danced to word jazz during his first television show in 1958. That put the series on a national stage and drew the Fuller Paint people, which led to Colors. Now Nordine's first book is coming out just in time for his 80th birthday.

"Everything in my life from the truth standpoint is strange," laughs Nordine when asked how the book began. Henrik Drescher, an illustrator from New Zealand, was a fan. He suggested Colors to complete his own Harcourt contract.

Drescher was attracted by Nordine's poetry because he felt it "verbalized" what his pictures "say with image." He describes the book as a "very personal" project. "Ken's work is at once sophisticated and funny and absurd and profound," he says. "There are precious few artists, even in a place the size of the United States, who are as committed to their eccentric, deep vision and, at the same time, are able to actually get it out there like Ken Nordine. To work on these word gems for me was a great honor--and a ton of fun."

The two have never actually met, but Nordine is delighted with the result. "It's another way to see," he says. "The drawing takes print and turns it into an art form, in and of itself. And really, when you think of what happens to us when we read, we visualize what the meaning is. We see the people. We see the situation. We choreograph our imagination by what we read and it's a different imprint than mine. I think there's a much higher level of encryption that comes from reading. Here you have the freedom of your own dreaming."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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