As long as there have been phonograph records, there have been spoken word records (poet Robert Browning in 1888, for example). Speeches, inspirational lectures, sermons, poetry, plays, books, short stories, travelogues, oral histories, memoirs, random thoughts and confidences, comedy routines – the list goes on forever. If someone were there to say, recite, or emote it, then somewhere there would be a record of it.
Records coupling the spoken word with music have been around for a while, too, but it took the combination of two currents of post-War American urban subculture – bebop jazz and Beat poetry – to really fire the American romantic imagination. What could be more urbane, more hiply American, more Beat (at least to the ’50s American mind) than waxing freely over a walking bassline?
Of course, there were in reality very few poetry-with-jazz records made by “real” bohemians, and for every Jack Kerouac, Bob Dorough, Eden Ahbez, or Kenneth Rexroth there were dozens who were there to capitalize on the phenomenon. Whether it’s cartoonish hipster-jive Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins, the watered-down product of Rod McKuen, or the beatnik satire of Del Close or Henry Jacobs (see below), though, I happily make room for all of them here on Office Naps.
1. An Interview of Our Times Conducted by S. Petterstein, A History of Jazz (World Pacific)
Shorty Petterstein was the beatnik persona of Bay Area institution Henry Jacobs, who in real life managed to be both more normal and far hipper than his satirical creation.
After late ‘40s broadcasting stints on the Mexican border and in Chicago (where he crossed paths with Ken Nordine), Henry Jacobs alighted in the San Francisco; he’d henceforth be associated with the city and its experimental ethos. Jacobs was fascinated with sound. More specifically, he was fascinated by the possibilities of manipulating taped recordings of sound. Accordingly, it’s Jacobs’ early audio projects (some of which were released on Folkways Records in the ‘50s) as well as his Vortex collaborations with filmmaker Jordan Belson for which he’s probably best remembered today.
The Vortex experiments alone should have earned Jacobs the key to the city. A series of audio/visual happenings organized by Jacobs and Belson at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium, the Vortex experiments (properly known as the Vortex Experiments in Sound and Light, also represented on Folkways) featured Jacobs’ collages and audio manipulations in addition to compositions by John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Toru Takemitsu, and Luciano Berio.
Read more about the guy and you get the feeling that if someone in San Francisco was dropping a television into the trash in 1959, then Jacobs would be there to collaborate. Jacobs was involved with everyone and everything. He was the force behind comedian Lenny Bruce’s first record (Interviews of Our Times). He rubbed shoulders with Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria and Beats like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, and Allen Ginsberg. He was a disc jockey at Berkeley’s groundbreaking KPFA, where he mixed ethnic field recordings with his penchant for radio satire.
Which brings us finally to 1958’s “A History of Jazz.” Taken from The Wide Weird World of Shorty Petterstein: More Interviews of Our Time, “A History of Jazz,” is characteristic of both the album’s twisted style as well as the Shorty Petterstein alter ego (which Jacobs had been cultivating during his radio broadcasts).
This selection is one of the album’s weirder and more atmospheric sketches, too. The foghorn, the bells, the distant harbor noises: it evokes an image of Jacobs (or Petterstein, rather), alone at 3 a.m. in some Grant Avenue walk-up and free associating into his portable reel-to-reel, jazz records at hand.
And that’s the history of jazz.
Jacobs would go on to collaborate with auteurs George Lucas and Walter Murch on their THX 1138 film. He’d contribute to PBS’s early ‘70s animated show The Fine Art of Goofing Off, receive a 1964 Oscar nomination for his anti-smoking short “Breaking the Habit,” and pay the bills with ads created for Japan Airlines and Bank of America. Though no longer active in the business, Jacobs is alive and well in Northern California; he presently co-curates of the Alan Watts archives.
You can hear a fairly recent NPR story on Jacobs here.
(Incidentally, I believe that the three musical snippets heard in rapid succession on “A History of Jazz” are records by Louis Armstrong, George Russell, and Miles Davis.)
2. Ken Nordine, Crimson and Olive (Dunwich)
“Crimson and Olive” is manna from the mind of Ken Nordine, a Chicago personality who’s carved out a unique niche for himself with his insomniac creativity and a richly resonant, basso profundo voice. Long involved in broadcasting and commercial voice-over work, Nordine is much like Henry Jacobs in that he’s notched successes in and out of the square, corporate world.
Nordine’s major label recording career began in the mid-‘50s with his narration for orchestra leader Billy Vaughn’s Shifting, Whispering Sands EP, a Western-themed easy-listening suite arranged for Vaughn (and based on country-pop singer Rusty Draper’s 1955 hit). Though novel, Shifting, Whispering Sands was a staid ‘50s choral affair.
The record’s success led to infinitely hipper territory, however, as Nordine was able to sell Dot Records on releasing several albums’ worth of his surreal and ruminative stories (set against the cool jazz backdrop of the Fred Katz group). An extension of Nordine’s ‘50s radio show, this was the beginning of the Word Jazz albums. While Nordine would continue these spoken word and musical experiments over the decades (including collaborations with artists as unlikely as Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, and the Grateful Dead), it’s perhaps his Colors album that represents the culmination of Nordine’s word jazz technique.
Colors started out life as a commercial campaign for Fuller Paint Company. From the familiar blue and yellow, to obscure hues like puce and ecru, the project would be expanded to thirty-four sketches of thirty-four anthropomorphized colors, and eventually edited and released on Philips Records in 1965.
“Crimson and Olive,” though one of the album’s weaker sketches musically (and not containing “Olive,” either, as promised in the title), nonetheless represents Nordine’s jazzy, oddly philosophical style of wordplay. This is also the only place I’ve seen anything from Nordine’s Colors album released on 45. The flipside of this selection is “Bachman,” a Batman parody credited to “Ken Nordine Accompanied By His Rubber Frogs.”
At age eighty-eight, Nordine is still very much active in radio and recording today. He released an album of his word jazz (Transparent Mask) in 2001, and I was delighted to hear him in fine form earlier this year on NPR, too.
(The Dunwich label seen here is far and away better known for its roster of ‘60s Chicago garage bands like the Shadows of Knight, the Del-Vetts, and Saturday’s Children.)
3. U.B.’s Group, Percussive Woman (Warner Brothers)
Not Ken Nordine, but a strange imitation of Nordine during his ‘50s Word Jazz heyday.
So, yes, this selection is every obnoxious cliché about women, passed off as paternal wisdom. “Percussive Woman” is a relic, if nothing else. But it actually sounds really good, all beat poetry percussion and misterioso bass and what not.
The “Rogers” credited as co-writer on this obscurity is Milt Rogers, a music director and staff arranger at Dot Records, obviously on temporary leave from Dot for a bit of freelance work. The “Hendler” is Herb Hendler, a long-time A&R; man, producer, and composer who’s probably best known as the lyricist behind Ralph Flanagan’s 1953 Big Band hit “Hot Toddy.”
“Percussive Woman” was recorded in 1962.