Got to Pay Dues To Blow the Blues

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

Got to Pay Dues To Blow the Blues

The saxophonist Lee Jung-sik says he ate bread soaked in his tears while living as a club musician in Korea.

At 18, Mr. Lee left his home in Hampyeong, North Cholla province, and wandered around the streets of Seoul hoping to find a club that would let him play his music. When he finally ended up in a bar near Bongcheon-dong - in a building that also housed brothels - there were terrifying moments, he said, which forced him to see the dark side of the world at a young age.

Now 42, when Mr. Lee looks back at those experiences he thinks they allowed him to reflect on the true spirit of jazz, which he said involves extreme human emotions. And though some of his musician friends complain about the "perverted" jazz culture in Korea that puts the music in the same room as expensive cocktails, fancy interior decor and Korean yuppies, he thinks such an imbalance has always been part of the history of jazz. As an example of this, he cites African-American musicians playing in front of white audiences in the early days of jazz.

Mr. Lee first got his hands on a saxophone while he was in junior high school. At first, he said, it was more of a fascination than a learning experience. Attending a farming school in rural North Cholla province, the only instrument he was familiar with was a harmonica. When his teacher first passed him a "shiny gold thing" in the school band, he said he had an immediate bond with it and knew it would be the object that would change his life.

Then there was the music. He liked how it sounded. Some days, he would run home from school and play it for 10 hours straight. There were numerous artists and writers who inspired his style, but he mastered the instrument entirely on his own. He joined a traveling musical troupe and played in circuses and theatrical events. While in senior high school, he started playing in cabarets where middle-aged women practiced dance steps with young gigolos.

He saved money his parents gave him for school field trips and got his first saxophone. He says, "It was strange. I was never a troublemaker at school or anything. In fact I was very quiet. But from the time I got carried away with the saxophone, I began to do the strangest things. I wore wigs and played in clubs."

When he came to Seoul in 1979, the country was at the peak of military dictatorship. His experience of the prevalent corruption was at close hand, because the club he worked in was near an army garrison. "I guess the soldiers in Korea had all the power in the world back then. They would come and literally place their guns on the table and force the musicians to play what they wanted to hear," he says, while complaining about the nasty treatment club musicians have to put up with even now in Korea.

It was also around that time that he moved in with his wife. "I could barely feed myself with the money I was making. And I was often traveling with the troupe. One time I came back home after a long trip, and my wife was earning her living by helping out at our landlord's fish market. She was also pregnant," he said. The hardship continued until he joined the KBS Orchestra in the early '80s.

Mr. Lee said he misses the '80s, when jazz musicians collaborated with performance artists and writers, drank through the night in seedy underground bars and exchanged ideas. Now, the culture has almost died out, and many of his friends have emigrated to the United States. Though he decided to remain in the business, he has mixed emotions. One of the things that bothers him the most these days is the notion of "crossover music," on which many people in the business are fixated.

"They can't just put any old contrasting ideas together and expect them to work naturally," he insisted. And it's not something he is tempted to try. He said the organizers of a performance at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts recently tried to set him up on stage with the pop violinist Eugene Park. Though he said he respects Mr. Park's music, he felt the idea of trying to combine pop and jazz was part of a cultural fad, a fad which has also seen the rampant overuse of the term "fusion."

Mr. Lee regularly performs in Once in a Blue Moon in Cheongdam-dong and Cheon-nyeon Dong-ando in Daehak-ro.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------
< LIVE JAZZ CLUBS IN SEOUL >

Janus Jazz Club Cheongdam-dong 02-546-9774

One of the oldest jazz clubs in Seoul, Janus will celebrate the 23d anniversary of its opening in November. It offers the most original jazz in Korea. The club holds frequent jam sessions and special events featuring local and international musicians.



Once in a Blue Moon Cheongdam-dong 02-549-5490

Located opposite Galleria department store, the club is a hang-out for young Seoulites. Offering jazz workshops and big band performances - rare events in Korea - the club has been very active in trying to establish a jazz culture in the local scene. The club produces the monthly Doobop Magazine. Good for special occasions.



Cheon-nyeon Dong-ando Daehak-ro 02-762-8985

A relaxed place to get fruity cocktails and finger food while listening to live bands, all at an affordable price. Located behind KFC fast food restaurant, the club hosts the saxophonist Lee Jung-sik every Friday night.



All That Jazz Itaewon 02-795-5701

Established in 1976, the club mostly features local bands and vocalists who perform traditional jazz. Located about 100 meters from the Hamilton Hotel, the bands normally play from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.



Birdland Sinchon 02-312-7021

This bar/restaurant is a good place to enjoy jazz in central Seoul, featuring both traditional and "fusion" jazz. Occasionally featuring crossover music by pop violinist Eugene Park, it's situated near the back gate of Ewha Womans University. Open from 11 a.m. until midnight. A cocktail costs around 8,000 won ($6).



Jazz Story Samcheong-dong 02-725 - 6537

Located within 500 meters from Kyongbok Palace, this crumbling building is known more as a spot for photo shoots and filming TV soap operas. Open from 8 p.m., the club offers coffee and drinks at moderate prices. For a meal before or after listening to the music, just a few minutes' walk from the cafe is a renowned sujebi (handmade dumpling soup) restaurant, Samcheong-dong Sujebi.

Janus Jazz Club Cheongdam-dong 02-546-9774

One of the oldest jazz clubs in Seoul, Janus will celebrate the 23d anniversary of its opening in November. It offers the most original jazz in Korea. The club holds frequent jam sessions and special events featuring local and international musicians.



Once in a Blue Moon Cheongdam-dong 02-549-5490

Located opposite Galleria department store, the club is a hang-out for young Seoulites. Offering jazz workshops and big band performances - rare events in Korea - the club has been very active in trying to establish a jazz culture in the local scene. The club produces the monthly Doobop Magazine. Good for special occasions.



Cheon-nyeon Dong-ando Daehak-ro 02-762-8985

A relaxed place to get fruity cocktails and finger food while listening to live bands, all at an affordable price. Located behind KFC fast food restaurant, the club hosts the saxophonist Lee Jung-sik every Friday night.



All That Jazz Itaewon 02-795-5701

Established in 1976, the club mostly features local bands and vocalists who perform traditional jazz. Located about 100 meters from the Hamilton Hotel, the bands normally play from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.



Birdland Sinchon 02-312-7021

This bar/restaurant is a good place to enjoy jazz in central Seoul, featuring both traditional and "fusion" jazz. Occasionally featuring crossover music by pop violinist Eugene Park, it's situated near the back gate of Ewha Womans University. Open from 11 a.m. until midnight. A cocktail costs around 8,000 won ($6).



Jazz Story Samcheong-dong 02-725 - 6537

Located within 500 meters from Kyongbok Palace, this crumbling building is known more as a spot for photo shoots and filming TV soap operas. Open from 8 p.m., the club offers coffee and drinks at moderate prices. For a meal before or after listening to the music, just a few minutes' walk from the cafe is a renowned sujebi (handmade dumpling soup) restaurant, Samcheong-dong Sujebi.

Janus Jazz Club Cheongdam-dong 02-546-9774

One of the oldest jazz clubs in Seoul, Janus will celebrate the 23d anniversary of its opening in November. It offers the most original jazz in Korea. The club holds frequent jam sessions and special events featuring local and international musicians.



Once in a Blue Moon Cheongdam-dong 02-549-5490

Located opposite Galleria department store, the club is a hang-out for young Seoulites. Offering jazz workshops and big band performances - rare events in Korea - the club has been very active in trying to establish a jazz culture in the local scene. The club produces the monthly Doobop Magazine. Good for special occasions.



Cheon-nyeon Dong-ando Daehak-ro 02-762-8985

A relaxed place to get fruity cocktails and finger food while listening to live bands, all at an affordable price. Located behind KFC fast food restaurant, the club hosts the saxophonist Lee Jung-sik every Friday night.



All That Jazz Itaewon 02-795-5701

Established in 1976, the club mostly features local bands and vocalists who perform traditional jazz. Located about 100 meters from the Hamilton Hotel, the bands normally play from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.



Birdland Sinchon 02-312-7021

This bar/restaurant is a good place to enjoy jazz in central Seoul, featuring both traditional and "fusion" jazz. Occasionally featuring crossover music by pop violinist Eugene Park, it's situated near the back gate of Ewha Womans University. Open from 11 a.m. until midnight. A cocktail costs around 8,000 won ($6).



Jazz Story Samcheong-dong 02-725 - 6537

Located within 500 meters from Kyongbok Palace, this crumbling building is known more as a spot for photo shoots and filming TV soap operas. Open from 8 p.m., the club offers coffee and drinks at moderate prices. For a meal before or after listening to the music, just a few minutes' walk from the cafe is a renowned sujebi (handmade dumpling soup) restaurant, Samcheong-dong Sujebi.

Janus Jazz Club Cheongdam-dong 02-546-9774

One of the oldest jazz clubs in Seoul, Janus will celebrate the 23d anniversary of its opening in November. It offers the most original jazz in Korea. The club holds frequent jam sessions and special events featuring local and international musicians.



Once in a Blue Moon Cheongdam-dong 02-549-5490

Located opposite Galleria department store, the club is a hang-out for young Seoulites. Offering jazz workshops and big band performances - rare events in Korea - the club has been very active in trying to establish a jazz culture in the local scene. The club produces the monthly Doobop Magazine. Good for special occasions.



Cheon-nyeon Dong-ando Daehak-ro 02-762-8985

A relaxed place to get fruity cocktails and finger food while listening to live bands, all at an affordable price. Located behind KFC fast food restaurant, the club hosts the saxophonist Lee Jung-sik every Friday night.



All That Jazz Itaewon 02-795-5701

Established in 1976, the club mostly features local bands and vocalists who perform traditional jazz. Located about 100 meters from the Hamilton Hotel, the bands normally play from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.



Birdland Sinchon 02-312-7021

This bar/restaurant is a good place to enjoy jazz in central Seoul, featuring both traditional and "fusion" jazz. Occasionally featuring crossover music by pop violinist Eugene Park, it's situated near the back gate of Ewha Womans University. Open from 11 a.m. until midnight. A cocktail costs around 8,000 won ($6).



Jazz Story Samcheong-dong 02-725 - 6537

Located within 500 meters from Kyongbok Palace, this crumbling building is known more as a spot for photo shoots and filming TV soap operas. Open from 8 p.m., the club offers coffee and drinks at moderate prices. For a meal before or after listening to the music, just a few minutes' walk from the cafe is a renowned sujebi (handmade dumpling soup) restaurant, Samcheong-dong Sujebi.

Janus Jazz Club Cheongdam-dong 02-546-9774

One of the oldest jazz clubs in Seoul, Janus will celebrate the 23d anniversary of its opening in November. It offers the most original jazz in Korea. The club holds frequent jam sessions and special events featuring local and international musicians.



Once in a Blue Moon Cheongdam-dong 02-549-5490

Located opposite Galleria department store, the club is a hang-out for young Seoulites. Offering jazz workshops and big band performances - rare events in Korea - the club has been very active in trying to establish a jazz culture in the local scene. The club produces the monthly Doobop Magazine. Good for special occasions.



Cheon-nyeon Dong-ando Daehak-ro 02-762-8985

A relaxed place to get fruity cocktails and finger food while listening to live bands, all at an affordable price. Located behind KFC fast food restaurant, the club hosts the saxophonist Lee Jung-sik every Friday night.



All That Jazz Itaewon 02-795-5701

Established in 1976, the club mostly features local bands and vocalists who perform traditional jazz. Located about 100 meters from the Hamilton Hotel, the bands normally play from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.



Birdland Sinchon 02-312-7021

This bar/restaurant is a good place to enjoy jazz in central Seoul, featuring both traditional and "fusion" jazz. Occasionally featuring crossover music by pop violinist Eugene Park, it's situated near the back gate of Ewha Womans University. Open from 11 a.m. until midnight. A cocktail costs around 8,000 won ($6).



Jazz Story Samcheong-dong 02-725 - 6537

Located within 500 meters from Kyongbok Palace, this crumbling building is known more as a spot for photo shoots and filming TV soap operas. Open from 8 p.m., the club offers coffee and drinks at moderate prices. For a meal before or after listening to the music, just a few minutes' walk from the cafe is a renowned sujebi (handmade dumpling soup) restaurant, Samcheong-dong Sujebi.


by Park Soo-mee

More in Features

Sculptor Joo Hoo-sik finds inspiration in the Year of the Cow

Nothing's fair in love and Covid

Top culture stories of the year

[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument

ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now