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Parables for the Paranoid: The World of Word Jazz

review by gregory stephenson

In the 1950s there were only a few oases of the outré at which weary travellers traversing the endless wastelands of blandness might refresh their parched brains. One such rare, restorative well of weirdness was Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz, a series of four long playing records released between 1957 and 1960. As their title suggests, the Word Jazz record albums are not to be easily categorized, but – as stated on the sleeve of the first Word Jazz LP – represent “a somewhat new medium.” It is a medium that unites jazz music with spoken narratives, narratives themselves conceived in the quirky, improvisational spirit of jazz. The albums also exploit the evocative, poetic power of electronic sound effects, creating at times abstract soundscapes. The predominant component of Word Jazz is, however, the word in the form of strange tales – fables, vignettes, parables, anecdotes, extended jests – spoken by their author, Ken Nordine. Nordine’s tales are free-form verbal riffs, monologues and miniature plays, whimsical, surreal, amusing, disturbing – their flavour something like Franz Kafka by way of Lewis Carroll.

During the late 1950s and early '60s, Word Jazz was part of an underground current of hip culture that explored the creative and subversive potentials of the newly developed long playing record. (The Word Jazz albums have affinities with the poetry and jazz recordings of the Beats, and share certain common traits with the neurotic-satiric monologues of Mort Sahl and the wildly inventive routines of Lenny Bruce, all of which came into being during the same period of time.) In the decades that have followed, various performing artists, including Jerry Garcia, Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson, have found inspiration in Nordine’s fecund strangeness, and the Word Jazz LPs have attained cult and collector status. Happily, a selection of 18 tracks from Word Jazz (1957), Son of Word Jazz (1958), Next Word Jazz (1959), and Word Jazz Vol. II (1960) has now been issued in CD format by Rhino Records under the title The Best of Word Jazz, Vol. 1.

A recurrent motif in Nordine’s Word Jazz tales is obsession. His protagonists become preoccupied with food or time or television, with numbers or nothingness or absurd, insoluble ontological problems. A concomitant theme of the tales is that of the intrusion or irruption into banal reality of mysterious forces and unfathomed meanings.

An early tale expressive of both of these themes is “What Time Is It?”, in which a man whose life is undeviatingly ordered and numbingly normal is transformed into a visionary obsessive as the result of a practical joke played on him by a friend. A sense of mystery suddenly subverts the restrictive patterns of his life and he becomes awestricken at the revelation of perspectives and possibilities to which he was previously blind. Similarly, in another fable, titled “Flibberty Jib,” the populace of an eventless small town is raised to a state of ecstatic transcendence by a mysterious savior-like figure and the power of his bebop-mantra, only to lose their rapture to suspicions fostered by local sceptics, who thus return the townspeople to their gray lives.

At times, in Nordine’s tales the irruption of the marvellous into our lives takes the form of a notion which then becomes a compulsion, as in “Reaching Into In,” in which an ordinary family man is driven to pursue an eccentric quest: to arrive at the ultimate innermost of the farthest, deepest within, the primary particle of being. A futile obsession, but still unexpectedly he is rewarded by contact with something ineffable, something beyond the boundaries of mundane reality. Perhaps the fullest realization of wonder and mystery is attained by the sound-painters of “The Sound Museum” whose creations are themselves haunting enigmas, echoes from convulsive and numinous inner realms.

The enemies of mystery and the marvellous in the world of Word Jazz are the forces of order and conformity, the agencies of banality and blandness. It is sterile order in the guise of “a very careful, regular, regulated life” that causes the poisoning of a poetic dog in “Original Sin,” while it is conformity that stifles human individuality and creativity in “Confessions of 349-18-5171” and “A Whistler;” and conformity that checks and oppresses the alienated, neurotic narrator of “Looks Like It’s Going to Rain.” Another destroyer of imagination and homogenizer of the human spirit is television, its insidious parasitical power the theme of “The Vidiot,” a sketch performed in the manner of an interview between a therapist and a television-addict, the latter a man in desperate flight from anxiety whose identity is being consumed by his ever-growing, insatiable need for the distraction of television entertainment.

To some, no doubt, these issues – alienation, anxiety, conformity, television – must all sound very quaint and quintessentially Fifties, but in my view they remain pertinent to the present era. Fifties artists and intellectuals were the first to register and respond to the post-modern condition – mass culture, mass marketing and the mediascape, ubiquitous advertising, unrestrained consumerism, and the relentless commodification of every value – and many of their observations remain acute and many of their strategies of resistance well worth reflecting upon.

Ken Nordine, I’m pleased to say, is alive and kicking and still creating Word Jazz. One of the latest products of his fertile brain and resonant baritone voice is Grandson of Word Jazz, an audio cassette manufactured by Nordine’s own Snail Records in Chicago. Nordine continues to explore the freedom of imagination available only in an audio medium, experimenting with overdubbing, electronic voice distortion and sound effects, mixing poetry and parody, off-beat blues and ballads, angst and whimsy – all in a seamless incongruous consonance.

The genially disconcerting fables, tales and parables that make up Word Jazz celebrate the intervention of inexplicable irregularities in the dull predictable life of the world and affirm a deep mysteriousness latent in the world and in human consciousness. It is heartening that Word Jazz has endured to nourish a new generation of listeners.

The Best of Word Jazz, Vol. 1, Rhino/Word Beat, R2 70773 (CD)

Grandson of Word Jazz, Snail Records, SR 1003 (audio cassette)

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