Kenneth Patchen: Ringing the Changes
Kenneth Patchen spent the late 1950s touring the United States, reading his poetry in such clubs as San Francisco's Blackhawk Club and The Cellar, Oakland's Civic Auditorium, and the Los Angeles Concert Hall, accompanied by the jazz band Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz sextet, which included saxophonist Modesto Briseno, trumpet player and percussionist Robert Wilson, bass and bassoon player Fred Dutton, and drummer and tympanist Tom Reynolds. The idea for a tour emerged after the recording, in 1957, of Kenneth Patchen Reads with Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet, featuring Patchen reading poems to a jazzy score that Ferguson composed expressly for him.
Patchen termed his work "poetry-jazz" and not "poetry and jazz" because he believed in the complete fusion of the two mediums, not just the accompaniment of one by the other. Ralph Gleason, jazz critic at the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the performances, "I think this technique presents the possibilities of an entire new medium of expression—a combination of jazz and poetry that would take nothing away from either form but would create something entirely new."
In his book, Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America, Larry Smith explains that this desire to create a new art form set Patchen apart from the burgeoning young poets and writers of the 1950s—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, among others—who also read their poetry accompanied by jazz bands, but who did so mainly to increase the audience for poetry. Still, Patchen came to be associated with the Beat generation and the San Francisco Poetry movement, much to his protest. In a letter to James Boyer May, editor of Trace magazine, he wrote, "My participation in, and knowledge of 'the San Francisco Scene' is exactly zero. My stay there was occasioned and colored by medical considerations." May understood Patchen's claim. In his magazine he wrote, "As many who witnessed [his performance] describe, Patchen, appearing in a bright scarlet blazer which [his wife] Miriam had found in a used-clothing store and dyed for him) took command of the stage, as all great jazz artists do, pulling from himself and the musicians and audience a real fusion, an experience of creative expression, as jazz musicians exclaim, he was 'really there' and 'ringing the changes.'"
Patchen's most memorable performance—and recording—took place on February 18, 1959, during a poetry-jazz tour in Washington and British Columbia, this time with the Alan Neil Quartet, led by jazz pianist Alan Neil. Despite having chipped a tooth and having undergone surgery that morning, Patchen arrived at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Vancouver for the scheduled live radio broadcast of the performance, which turned out to be among his best. "The band was ready to groove," Neil has written of that evening's performance. "We knew that something was happening, that this was 'something else'…With our nerves, our hearts, we heard him coming on, ringing the changes, threading and pulling us in and out of the light." The recording, Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada, originally released in 1959, was re-released in 2004.
In addition to his own collaborations with musicians, Patchen has had numerous poems set to music by such composers as David Bedford (for his piece, Two Poems for Chorus of Patchen, among others), Carla Kihlstedt (on her album, Two Foot Yard), and Kyle Gann, who set the poem "So may little dyings" to music. In 1941, Patchen's play, "The City Wears a Slouch Hat," was scored by avant-garde composer John Cage, who brought to life the sounds evoked in the play—street noises, telephones, and ocean waves, for example—with such "instruments" as tin cans, alarm bells, whistles, cowbells, horns, and telephones.
From the age of 26, Patchen suffered from a severe back injury that eventually confined him to bed for the last twelve years of his life. While the injury limited his mobility and his desire to continue his poetry-jazz movement, he published 43 books of poetry, prose, and "picture-poems"—poems accompanied by his own illustrations. He died in 1972, a month after his sixtieth birthday.