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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."

Park Sung-Yeon performed in recent years at Janus sometimes even when the club was empty, always dedicated to the music that gave her life, and even at other times in concert and studio from a wheelchair. Over the entrance to Janus now is a proclamation "Diva," and if Park Sung-Yeon is that, she earned the title honestly by durability and survival.

During the administration of Korean President Kim Young-sam in the late 1990s, there was a strictly-applied law which permitted only cabarets and night clubs to feature bands. No band was allowed to play inside cafes or restaurants, where only solo performances were permitted. Some clubs prohibited westerners, for fear of rowdiness. Now bands can play anywhere, and jazz is perceived to have an air of freedom, contrasted to past restrictions.

Beyond Imitation

Seoul has a handful of leading jazz clubs, most with names invoking the west. There's a "Jazz Alley" and a "Mo' Better Blues." "All That Jazz" uses the same logo as the Bob Fosse dance movie, and was designed intentionally "to look like a jazz bar." The blue neon of "Once in a Blue Moon" announces itself as a jazz bar, but is more than that. It features fine dining, and has been used in television dramas and commercials to convey the "look" of an elegant nightclub. "Soul to God" plays off its location, in Seoul, and soul music; exterior signage proclaims "Live Jazz Club."

"A Thousand Years" (in Korean: Chonnyeundong-ando) has neon signage above the stage, "Live Jazz Club," as if one needed to be reminded, but sets a mood and culture for live jazz in an airy second floor space. The "Crazy Horse" is a basement bar perfectly located on an alley. "Club Evans" has a broken-in authenticity, but also a functioning in-house recording studio and jazz academy to foster Korean jazz.

"Moonglow" has been a labor of love for decades by pianist Shin Kwan-Woong and a number of older players. A documentary on the club reminds it descends from a period "where there was no sheet music, no teachers, no stages, but they survived." Past clubs were "Bird Land" and "Hot House." Busan, a major city in the south of the country formerly known as Pusan, has "Club Monk," "The Back Room," and "Jazz Cat."

From the beginnings of Korean jazz with post-war imitation, it's understandable that Korean jazz clubs copy western names for their clubs. Jazz as a brand is perceived to convey western modernity, affluence, and freedom, which has an appeal as the nation has developed economically. The names are also easy identifiers for what is still a small pack. For westerners in a foreign city, a jazz spot with a familiar name even if timeworn is a reliable compass point.

Returning Home

As the Janus club signified when founded, Korean musicians now also stand astride the past, and look toward the future to develop what may be a uniquely Korean flavor of jazz. The imitation reflected in club names is a sensitive point. Musicians want to produce music with their own authenticity and distinction. In Jae Jin sees the number of students returning from study in the west as being in a transitional period to build their own music. The Seoul Jazz Academy is affiliated with Berklee, and hundreds of Korean students have been accepted for study at Berklee in Boston, and elsewhere, indicative of a strong interest, and talent level, among Korean students.

There's now an abundance of young Korean musicians returning home. That they could study abroad in the first place is a function of Korea's economic climb after the longstanding effects of Japanese occupation, World War II, the Korean War, and years of privation. "They return to Korea having grown tremendously, exposed to musical vocabulary and technique never available to more senior musicians in past decades," In observes. These students who return to Korea "are performing actively, but there are still very limited spots for them."

Many smaller locations begin mostly as hangouts for musicians, do business for awhile, and then fade. Particularly for the smaller places, it's difficult to stay open on jazz. Tourists and similar business visitors are unlikely to encounter these joints. K-pop is tremendously successful, drawing musicians away from jazz. He concedes it's a natural result for musicians to pursue what's available. The Seoul metropolitan government is investing $450 million in a five year plan to make the city a global music hub, focusing on K-pop and festivals. The music market in Korea is dynamic but highly competitive, In said. "There are so many exciting things in the world, and jazz is hard to compete in it."

In's wife, vocalist Youn Sun Nah, is one who has taken her music outside of Korea. That she is Korean is simply a fact of birthplace and ethnicity, not a musical modifier; however, she was the first Korean to perform in Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. She has played festivals from Montreal to Montreux, as well as Jarasum. She is touring the United States this October, at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., Birdland in New York, the Blue Whale in Los Angeles, and Triple Door in Seattle, before an extended schedule in Europe into 2020.

She discovered jazz when training in the chanson style in Paris, and through jazz expanded her oeuvre tremendously. On her CD Immersion, for Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me" she overdubs herself to sound like prayerful Andrews Sisters. She renders "You Can't Hurry Love" as a blues far from Diana Ross' chirpiness; she can be a gospel shouter, a Betty Davis screamer, and scat over flamenco. Her own spacy, mysterious, adventuring compositions are delivered in an ethereal soprano.

In says that as Youn Sun Nah builds a unique style of her own, she is an inspiration and gives encouragement to junior jazz musicians in her home country. "Through her, jazz is no longer coming to Korean music with the feeling of foreign. It's just music."

Similarly, when vocalist Heo So Young performing at Jarasum this year reaches beyond American standards into the Korean songbook, it extends ownership onto the music in South Korea. It's a path that has already been initiated by another Korean female vocalist, Malo, who mixes her album releases between Korean and English offerings. Making jazz Korean, and making Korean jazz, are the next developments there in growing the music. Heo So Young knows explicitly what she is doing, even if the Jarasum audience doesn't, but they will hear the music in two languages, one being their own. On the festival grounds, In Jae Jin continues in his belief, to "cultivate a good music field, making a strong tradition" for new listeners, to enjoy even what they may not (yet) know.

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