Bebop and blue notes
Pretty cool. Too bad it wasn’t real.
Cha was only acting in a scene for the hit television drama, “All My Love for You” in 1994. His audience, however, was blown away by how laid-back Cha looked (along with a cool greeting by cool people) at a place that was super-hot, at least for the time.
Jazz clubs in Korea are generally both luxurious and elegant. Popular jazz clubs in Seoul usually serve a variety of wines in an environment that looks something like a five-star hotel lounge. The popular image of a jazz club was therefore both one of luxury and one of arrogance (“You think you’re so cool in those shades with that contrabass....”).
But in the television drama, the jazz club was more like a nice, old and cozy place ― somewhere a person could hang out after school or work. According to Jin Nak-won, owner of the Itaewon club All That Jazz, the oldest jazz club in Seoul and the set for the scene where Cha visited to play the blues, that’s how a jazz club should be.
He said his dream would be realized if people realized that the jazz clubs like the one they had seen on television were fun and relaxing instead of posh and boring.
“Because that’s the kind of place we have been trying to create,” Mr. Jin said. “You are supposed to feel comfortable and relaxed when you are listening to good music.”
The club looks as if it hasn’t changed much since the place made its television debut a decade ago. Actually, the place hasn’t changed much since 1976, when it opened. It still has the same squeaky staircase with the same photos of Afro-Latin jazz musicians hanging on the wall. A small stage is still set up on one side, and on the other, vinyl LP records stacked high and a bartender preparing a margarita cocktail behind a small bar.
The only notable change was in the clientele: the room, barely large enough to sqeeze in seven tables, was filled with Korean customers. When the club first opened, few Koreans listened to jazz and most of the customers were U.S. soldiers.
“We changed the chairs,” Mr. Jin pointed out and took a sip of hot tea. The hard-cushioned low chairs still looked quite old.
Wearing a gray pullover and a pair of thick glasses, Mr. Jin, 46, spoke quietly while his eyes twinkled behind his glasses. He wasn’t the club’s founder ― that was a Chinese-American man named Ma Myeong-deok.
For Mr. Jin, All That Jazz was a place where he and his friends could hang out and listen to the music of artists like Quincy Jones as long as they wished. “There was nowhere else in Korea where we could listen to jazz music,” he said.
He loved the place so much that he got a job there as a bartender. His dream, he said, was to open a jazz club like All That Jazz. That turned out to be easier than he expected: Mr. Ma decided to go back to America, and Mr. Jin bought the club.
Time passed and jazz become trendy. Clubs small and large opened up across town with blaring neon lights advertising “Jazz Club” or “Jazz Bar.” Cha went on television and strode around on stage looking cool. A date at a jazz bar become mandatory for couples. Restaurants pretended to be jazz clubs by piping in music over sound systems.
“Well, as long as the clubs have a stage where jazz musicians can go and perform, it’s good news that more jazz clubs are appearing,” said Mr. Jin. “It’s difficult to make a living as a jazz musician in Korea.”
It was easy for him to recommend a few nice jazz clubs around the city, since a lot of them are now run by his friends from the days when he patronized All that Jazz instead of owned it.
“There’s one in Hongdae and another in Daehangno,” he said. But when he was asked to comment on them, he laughed. “You’ll know who stages the best jazz when you go there.”
Lee Jong-u is a regular customer and a friend of Mr. Jin. “The best part of All That Jazz is that you can even catch a performance by a world-famous artist if you’re lucky,” he said. He couldn’t find place to sit, but didn’t seem to mind standing next to a American man, who was also enjoying a bottle of beer over the live music.
Mr. Lee said Jimmy Smith, a famous jazz organist, had once dropped by the bar. So did Kenny Garrett, a jazz saxophonist, who came by for a look at the place after hearing about it while touring Korea.
“Famous musicians have heard about this place, so they come in for a drink after their gig is over at some place fancy,” Mr. Lee said. “But when they see the stage, they ask for a jam session. That’s when customers get lucky and get to see a free concert by some legendary musician.”
Even without surprise guests, the bar’s schedule is densely packed. The famous alto saxophonist Jung Sung-jo and guitarist Shin Kwan-woong perform on weekend nights ― both are close acquaintances of Mr. Jin.
On a recent night, Prelude, a six-men jazz ensemble from Berklee College of Music, was featuring their bebop in front of a packed audience. Some people stood outside the doorway to listen to the band.
“We came [to Korea] because we’re familiar with Mr. Jin and his club,” said Heean Ko, the leader and pianist in the band. He said he formed the band because he thought there was no group in Korea that could combine New Orleans funk and blues with a Latin feels.
“And this place is a warm cozy place for a gig, where the audience has to sit so close to the stage,” he said.
Despite its late opening in 2002, this place quickly earned fame as a great jazz bar, with big-name musicians dropping by after concerts. Admission is 3,000 ($2.90) to 5,000 won depending on the scheduled artist for the day. On Saturday, Kim Soo-yul, a famous saxophonist, is on stage for the end of the year event.
Once In a Blue Moon
This is an all-time favorite place among couples looking for a nice place to impress their dates. Along with the performances from top Korean jazz musicians, the club serves over 100 kinds of wine and course menus prepared by former hotel chefs.
Probably the most well-known spot among Korean youth to go and enjoy jazz numbers in northern Seoul, the place is big enough hold parties for over 200 people. There’s no admission fee, but if it weren’t for the music, the place would feel more like a typical gigantic beer hall.
The club inside and out is decorated with antiques and remnants from the 1960s and ’70s such as typewriters, bicycles and even toilet seats creating a groovy, yet wacky, atmosphere. Despite the “jazzy” feel the name carries, however, the music there is not so groovy all the time. Live folk songs are also sometimes played.
by Lee Min-a
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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