Space and Time: Reflections on Ken Burns’s JAZZ Episode VI

Space and Time: Reflections on Ken Burns’s JAZZ Episode VI

By the 1930s the center of jazz had moved from Chicago and Harlem, where it lived in the 20’s, to Kansas City. The sixth episode of Ken Burns’ series JAZZ, describes this period and the birth of Kansas City Jazz. One of the hallmarks of this form of big band swing was that few musicians read music; it was all memorization and playing by ear. By this point in the series, half of the air time has been devoted to the ten-year span of the Great Depression, which some critics feel is too much. That may be true, but on its own it’s a good episode, telling the stories of jazz artists who made it in KC, from Count Basie to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

Trumpeter Clark Terry recalls half-jokingly, “Well, Count Basie became very very, very popular through the medium of the notes which he didn’t play more so than the notes which he did play. He developed this habit through the medium of his socializing in Kansas City. The Cherry Blossom, the little club that they played in, was a place.. with tables all in gingham tablecloths, and everybody was very intimately arranged, you know. So Basie’s piano was right next to a table, so he would have friends – naturally everybody in the place is his friend – so he has a little taste over here, the rhythm section’s playing… so all he has to do is “plink!” and then he goes over and “yeah, hey man, it’s good to see you!” and has a little taste over here. Meanwhile, the rhythm section’s still going, he comes back, “doot dee doom” and goes over there… so his social life contributed to his sparse indulgence on the keyboard.

Whatever the reason, we always say that Basie was the reason who taught us all, beginners and old-timers alike, a very very important lesson, and that is the utilization of space and time in jazz.”

The Yoko Miwa Trio has played some delightfully intimate venues, but wandering away from the keys for a drink seems like something only a jazzman in the 30s could get away with like Basie. Still, that notion of space and time is meaningful, and what you don’t play creates just as much resonance as what you do.

Compare The Beatles’ version of Paul McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers” to Yoko Miwa’s cover performed at Scullers Jazz club. Both make great use of pauses, leaving plenty of space between the phrases, but in Yoko’s interpretation, her right hand gently “sings” the melody with lots of room to breathe, while her left fills in the continuous background.

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