At A Korean Jazz Picnic, No Need To Know The Music

Arthur R George By

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It will live with their lifetime with good memories. —In Jae Jin
That jazz appeals to younger audiences, is fun, and not so serious, is more than a mere notion, materializing in, of all places, South Korea. The Jarasum Jazz Festival created there by promoter In Jae Jin has become one of the largest in Asia by hosting a multi-day event which features camping, western and Korean performers, and is intended to be so user-friendly he says it is "like a picnic where you do not need to know the music."

Audiences may not be aware of who they are hearing, and don't even necessarily care, but come away reporting to have enjoyed themselves in the experience. For those who had been paying attention and connecting the dots, Jarasum over the years (this is the sixteenth in the series) has provided a performance tutorial in jazz (and soul, and jazz/rock crossover). Visiting professors have included Joshua Redman, Maceo Parker, Richard Galliano, Stanley Clarke, Charles Lloyd, Kurt Elling, the Heath Brothers, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Paquito D'Rivera, Blind Boys of Alabama, Candy Dulfer, Victor Wooten, Yellowjackets.

Proud of Gathering

In is not deterred by purists who discount the savvy of the audience. In's point of pride is that he has "gathered a lot of people together at the jazz festival, whether they know jazz or not. The important thing is the moment of artistic experience. The experience of being exposed to good music is important. It will live with their lifetime with good memories."

This year's session on the weekend of October 4-6 has Terence Blanchard's E-Collective; Omar Sosa Afro-Cuban Quartet; Cuban pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa La Familia; pianist Matthew Whitaker; from New Orleans the wide-ranging Jon Cleary and his Absolute Monster Gentlemen; and Rachel Z, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Omar Hakim together as Ozmosys.

Korea has plenty of outdoor concerts through the summer months, for rock, pop, and K-pop, a flashy and uniquely Korean popular music style. Often audiences go just for the elation of the event, without much concern for the specifics of performers.

Jarasum is in the town of Gapyeong, 35 miles northeast of the South Korean capital city of Seoul, a trip of 30 to 55 minutes by car or train. Jarasum is set on once-barren islands that In Jae Jin reclaimed through government-assisted development projects. The name references nearby hills known as "the turtles." In Jae Jin innovated the use of camping which was distinctive to his festival; it has since become a trend elsewhere in the country. Korean festivalgoers today care as much about the atmosphere of the location as the music itself: the reason why many music festivals now take place on scenic grounds.

The capital city Seoul hosts a very good summer jazz festival held in the former stadium of the 1988 summer Olympics; no camping, but it does offer major imports: this year, Wynton Marsalis, Omara Portuondo, John Scofield, Christian McBride. There are also localized neighborhood festivals in Seoul, and other cities self-promote with their own smaller festivals.

Balancing Must-See and Education

In says he tries to be bold in doing a festival program, while not losing balance. "I put a lot of time trying to introduce musicians who are active in Europe and America, and introduce relatively less known European musicians to Korean audiences. Of course I am trying to have must-see programs for jazz lovers and performances by legendary artists. Large jazz festivals have many functions one of which is education, the role of providing opportunities for audiences to meet musicians and arouse interest in new music."

In travels widely through the Europe and the U.S. inspecting trends. Denmark is the guest country for this year's festival, contributing the Danish Radio Big Band with Marilyn Mazur and other groups. Earlier this summer In attended Istanbul's İKSV Vitrin Showcase prospecting Turkish talent.

Jarasum starts with a young vibe, and keeps it young, with about 700—800 volunteers, none older than 35, who help festival-goers, set up, tear down and clean up. In return they get free food, accommodations, tee shirts, shoes, bags and other swag supplied by festival sponsors. It's a different approach from more august festivals in the U.S. and Europe, where staffing, and attendance, is often by older, often much, much older, adults.

Jarasum has always included a schedule of Korean musicians, indicative that South Korea has developed a legacy relationship with jazz. This continues this year. Vocalist Heo So Young is noted for American standards, but is now expanding into jazz treatments of Korean songs, a trend among other Korean musicians to embrace jazz and their homeland. Soojin Suh is a youngish female drummer who returned to Korea after study in New York, and recorded on ECM under the debut album Near East Quartet.

Saxophonist Yoosun Nam attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, and obtained a master's degree in jazz studies from New York University where she studied and performed with faculty Joe Lovano and Ralph Alessi, and with Bill Pierce and Darren Barrett who had played with Art Blakey and Elvin Jones right up to the end of Blakey's and Jones' lives. Maureen Choi, Korean-American, born in Michigan, emigrated to Spain, studied at Berklee, innovates on violin as a jazz instrument, integrates Spanish influences into her music, and now teaches at Berklee's Madrid campus.

No Talent?

In Jae Jin became a promoter pursuing what he did not know. As what he describes as having been a generally lax student, he otherwise loved playing saxophone in the college brass band, loved hanging with brass people, aspired to be professional, but faced early on the stark self-knowledge "that I had no musical talent." He still wanted to remain involved in music in some way.

He did not make it easy for himself. One of his personal credos is not to choose options as others do. He did not want to follow others swarming into corporate career paths, figuring he would be buried within the competition among the sheer volume of others. So he went in the opposite direction, looking for an opportunity that optimally no one else was going after, so he would have no competition. If he picked right, he would immediately have a monopoly of one.

"So I picked jazz, that nobody touched." Only later did he realize the market for jazz concerts was available because no one else wanted it. Even with a lack of competition, he was almost buried, encountering many difficult years.

Upon introducing himself, In often says that he doesn't like music, and hates jazz. One doesn't know if he is joking, or at least half-serious. He cannot have made the commitments and sacrifices he has made if the statement was completely true, but the dedication to jazz has been punishing. Before becoming a festival promoter in the mid-1990s, he produced concerts, targeted at a younger audience, many of which failed.

"There were not many young people in Korea interested in jazz music. Korea was not economically stable, and there were not many young people who could enjoy leisure time." Jazz for younger audiences was what he had chosen, and he stayed with it because that was the franchise he bought, even if faulty.

Over time, he did more than a thousand concerts, and moved toward his dream of a festival. The beginnings were promising, then everything crashed under pressure to grow too quickly, and with it came a personal debt crisis for festival obligations. Matters turned around after a long reconstruction. Now a balance of one-third government funding, one-third corporate funding, and one-third ticket revenues keeps it sustainable.

Constructing a Culture

Jazz first came to Korea through the development of radio and recording in the 1920s. It was seen as an upper class music, however, as only the wealthy could afford gramophones. The climate for jazz has not always been inviting. During the Japanese occupation before and during World War II, jazz was banned because of its western origins. Korea was so ravaged by World War II and extending into the Korean War, there was little mirth for celebration with jazz.

It was the U.S. military which constructed post-war Korean popular culture. American Forces media familiarized jazz as popular music to Korea, through radio, television, and recordings; people listened to what was being played. A need for musicians to play on the hundreds of stages created by the U.S. Eighth Army to entertain servicemen also created a boom period for employment of Korean musicians. They modeled themselves after the big band sounds of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Miller, as those were the tastes of the day for their American military audiences, and learned those songs, often by transcription, to audition for the bands.

At one point, the military was spending just more than a million dollars on music, more than South Korea's total yearly exports. However, when major portions of the Eighth Army were removed from South Korea in the 1960s for insertion into the newer combat of Vietnam, band opportunities in Korea shrank. Tastes also changed, as happened in the U.S., with rock and folk becoming the center of youth culture.

Jazz faded drastically, and only obtained a resurgence as background music signifying modernism for TV commercials and programs. Jazz appreciation in this period was not so much for the music itself but rather as fad image for commercial exploitation. Not until the late 1970s were there performance spaces dedicated to jazz.

Lee Pan Guen, considered to be the founder of modern Korean jazz, opened the Janus Jazz Club with singer Park Sung-Yeon in 1978. That title was picked for the Roman god, looking forward and back, back at the past, forward to the future. "I was beginning a whole new culture in Korea, so the name Janus seemed perfect," Park recalled in an interview with Korea Times.

Amid and between the wars, Lee could not get jazz-related books or records. He too learned the music by listening to United States' American Forces Radio and transcribing the popular jazz music of the post-war era. He played saxophone and bass, and developed his own method of teaching to influence most early Korean jazz musicians. Later, he even took saxophone from what had been heard in swing bands and rock and roll, and went on to explore lyrical free jazz in the manner of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.

Park Sung-Yeon also listened to military radio, fell in love with the music, and obtained her own sensibility about it. After all the hardships South Korea has undergone, she said that jazz helps Koreans express their sense of han, an internal experience of sadness or pessimism in the face of life's realities. Jazz, she said, offers a portal to what is "open and limitless."

That being said, she observed that jazz "always lacks something and that is what artists need to fill in. The interior for jazz clubs is the audience. It should be about the music and only music. Jazz is not about being popular, it's about the soul."



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