This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

 

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When asked about the most successful route to freelancing, the sage pundits’ advice often seems to fall into two distinct categories: either learn all the essential skill sets that will enable you to fit in seamlessly anywhere, or develop a unique and memorable brand identity that will set you apart from all other competitors.

Both are solid, time-tested approaches that could bring positive career results depending upon your individual goals, needs and personality type.

Today, I want to share with you the story of an extraordinary freelancer who managed to combine these two seemingly mutually exclusive approaches resulting in a financially and creatively successful career.

Ken Nordine’s ability to excel in two mutually exclusive career threads is a reminder that all conventional freelancing wisdom can on occasion be circumnavigated and that successful freelancing careers can arise from the most unexpected of inspirations.

In the beginning…

Born in Iowa in 1920 but raised in Chicago where he would live and eventually base the majority of his freelancing work, Ken Nordine was blessed with a deep booming “Voice of God.” It served him well in radio and television, first as a local announcer and later as a highly paid corporate commercial voice heard throughout the USA and Canada.

Mastering the craft of narration and commercial voiceovers enabled Nordine to eventually set up his own home studio and pick and choose the clients he was willing to vocally endorse. It was by all accounts a lucrative freelancing career thread and one that many would have been satisfied to engage in exclusively, enjoying its financial rewards and perfecting its many essential skills.

But somewhere along the way, Nordine’s innovative and quirky mind must have got very bored indeed. Or else was always looking for an alternative mode of expression. A fan of music – free-style jazz especially – and of the “beat poets” of the 1950s, he began broadcasting free-style spoken word stories on the radio. This would eventually lead into multi-decade multi-contract record deals and a whole new parallel freelancing career thread writing, producing and performing what he would ultimately term “Word Jazz“.

It’s hard to grasp the revolutionary nature of “Word Jazz” from today’s multi-genre perspective. The 1950s were a much more culturally conservative period. Nordine’s commercial corporate work must have been the ultimate expression in conventional corporate branding. And then he comes along with an imaginative and perplexing style of often nonsensical storytelling that is a radical hybrid between jazz and poetry.

Employing his impressive sonic talents to give it shape and a very distinctive sound, it must have appeared to be a mighty slap in the face to all those conventional values he otherwise appeared to espouse. A lesser talent perhaps would have been unable to maintain two such divergent career threads simultaneously.

It is to Nordine’s great credit that he was able to do so – and thrive in both at the same time.

My hour with Ken Nordine

I interviewed Nordine over a decade ago from his leafy suburban Chicago home studio. Our hour long phone conversation still leaves me gasping in astonishment at the range and complexity of ideas he expressed so fluidly and in such sonorous tones. I joked at the time that it was like talking to God, if God were on acid. (And maybe if I were too). A busy professional, he still made time to talk to a fellow freelancer about his work and the nature of his beloved “Word Jazz”.

The obvious questions to begin our conversation, what is “Word Jazz” and what were its origins?

Nordine explained (probably for the millionth time but still with great patience and passion) that the inspiration for his form of storytelling came from those fleeting magical moments between wakefulness and sleep, that magical twilight zone of reverie and free-flowing interior monologue, that we all experience but immediately forget.

For Nordine, the mining of that rich uncharted zone between dreams and reality changed his life. The thoughts contained therein, which he would record and transcribe and expand in his waking state in the studio along with the best live jazz musicians, soared from the mundane to the inspirational, following no rational roadmap.

Always humorous, often challenging the accepted conventional social norms of the era, Nordine’s form of sonic subversion mystified the masses but delighted his devoted fans. Best heard at night when drifting off to sleep, these other-worldly entertaining anecdotes eventually found a loyal cult following throughout the world enabling Nordine to satisfy his creative impulses for the rest of his very long life.

A shrewd freelancer, Nordine was able to convert these surreal aural outbursts into a successful parallel business that would in time outshine his conventional corporate voiceover work. Appearances on the radio (latterly NPR) helped cross-promote his recordings – both earlier on major labels and also later those which he eventually would release independently from his home studio. (This was long before most artists would get the same idea to do so).

Greatly beloved by many in the music and broadcasting industries, Nordine would go on to collaborate with many talented and unexpected creative partners (such as The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia) well into his most senior years.

The “Word Jazz” legacy

Never heard of Ken Nordine until now?

You can find out much more about this extraordinary freelance talent online including a tour of his home studio on YouTube.

Be sure to check out past episodes of his legendary “Word Jazz” radio series on archive.org. They continue to astonish, delight and challenge me.

Long discontinued original albums continue to be sold at increasing prices online although a very reasonably priced compilation of his earliest “Word Jazz” recordings is also available on CD. I can personally recommend it.

To this day, Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” is constantly rediscovered by new generations of listeners, hungry for alternatives to mainstream storytelling and eager to explore his sublime juxtapositions of spoken word and music. It remains fresh and alive and relevant to anyone willing to stretch their minds and experience a genuine aural “trip” unlike any other.

As a fellow freelancer, I deeply admire Nordine for successfully pursuing his parallel freelancing career threads simultaneously and with such longevity.

But he is a real professional hero to me in his resolute pursuit of his true sonic art amidst a business world that usually demanded restrictive structure, easy categorization and total compromise. “Word Jazz” readily defied all three.

The takeaway

Yes, it is possible to do it all!

You just need to be a rare and exceptional genius like Ken Nordine.

That’s all.

Ken Nordine passed away earlier this year, making it to almost 99 years of age.

His legacy, “Word Jazz,” lives on.

So too does his inspiration to all committed freelancers in search of excellence within themselves.

 

POSTED IN: Features