[Viewpoint]Jazzing up Korean culture

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[Viewpoint]Jazzing up Korean culture

Duke Ellington once remarked that the condition of jazz in a given country is a good barometer to measure the level of freedom there. Dictators almost always hate jazz precisely because it was born a free spirit and remains that way. Jazz combines contrasting attributes: Planning and improvisation, individuality and cooperation. When a nation-state and people reach a certain level of openness and sophistication, a balance of native traditions, domestic innovation and artistically valid concepts and procedures from other countries become possible. Korea has attained this degree of accomplishment in jazz and other art forms.
Since 1990, Koreans have enjoyed unrestricted foreign travel, demilitarization and local autonomy. With the arrival of Kim Dae-jung, economic reforms and a broad cultural opening also came about. Nowadays, independent journalism and an expanded emphasis on human rights, including the enhancement of immigrants’ rights, are coming to fruition. Hence we now have a flowering of Korean arts in film, television, fashion and music -- the “Korean wave.” Korea’s embrace of the great American art form known as jazz is a sure sign of embracing the world and wanting to engage in a dialogue with people beyond the Korean Peninsula. Jazz clubs, concerts and festivals abound throughout Korea.
The latest was the Jarasum International Jazz Festival over the weekend of Sept. 14 to 16. Various jazz stars from Korea, America and other nations participated. I was there for the Saturday performance. The threat of heavy rain turned out to be premature, at least that day; you couldn’t have asked for nicer weather in the evening or a more scenic area in Gapyeong. Attendance over the three-day weekend topped 15,000 people.
The Saturday highlight was the last act: the Clarke/Duke project. George Duke’s keyboard wizardry and Stanley Clarke’s spellbinding bass work dazzled the audience for more than an hour. There were new and old material, acoustic and electric instrumentation and lots of rapport with the folks watching and taking it all in. Earlier, the quartet with keyboardist Bob James, guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Seo Young-do and drummer Harvey Mason performed with elegant restraint, yet relaxed, expansive swing. Another pleasant surprise was the tango band of Ryota Komatsu, something you definitely don’t see everyday in Korea.
Those weekend performances and countless others that continue on a daily basis are evidence that jazz is here to stay and gaining new fans all the time. Although progress is being made, there are many things that people (including non-musicians) could do to improve the status and situation of jazz here. Although Korea has reached a high plateau of creative musical success, challenges remain.
For starters, there should be music and art departments in all public middle and high schools, not just a few; the arts are basic.
On their Web site, the U.S. National Association for Music Education, www.menc.org/ publication/articles/academic/growing.htm, a 1991 report details the many benefits for children who study music. They include understanding symbols in new contexts, discovering the precision and control of mathematics, directing personal creativity, exercising diverse problem-solving skills and gaining satisfaction through shared work. Scholarships for the most promising ought to be available, through public funding if necessary.
Currently, most Seoul-based universities with music departments still only have two basic routes for their students: traditional Korean music and European classical music.
Forcing all musically talented kids here into only one of these reactionary paths is foolish, unjust and wasteful. Most American universities, and indeed some European counterparts, have had formal jazz studies programs for well over 30 years. Talent and innovation should be encouraged in whatever genre (or genres) the individual chooses.
Once a Korean graduates from university and decides to become a professional jazz musician, a host of challenges await. A day job might be necessary because of low pay for some aspiring players, sometimes as little as 30,000 won ($32.70) per gig. A limited range of instruments seems to dominate the mindset of most club owners and record producers. If you want to stretch out on tuba, bassoon, violin, gayageum, marimba or even a trombone, forget it; piano, bass, drums, guitar and saxophone are often the only choices allowed. It is also quite rare for jazz, classical and Korean traditional musicians to jam together or hatch something really new. Almost infinite possibilities exist, but stereotypes remain hard to overcome.
The media is partly to blame as well. KBS, SBS and MBC ought to have jazz programs on their stations once every week at a set time, not constantly shuffled around. And though jazz is occasionally heard on the radio, it’s difficult to find and seldom heard for very long, amid the overkill of pop music. Earlier and more frequent announcements of upcoming jazz events in Korean and English-language newspapers would also be a big help. Small out-of-the-way clubs in Seoul need to advertise themselves better and offer clear directions for getting there, in both Korean and English.
The jazz scene here has evolved into something really special, but musically conscious Koreans need to make their voices heard more. Progressive-minded concert promoters, radio programmers, record producers, fans and musicians can encourage jazz with adventurous and new approaches. One can support the arts, yet offer constructive criticism also. As Ted Koehler wrote 75 years ago, “I gotta right to sing the blues.”

*The writer is a professor at the GSIS, Hanyang University.

by Joseph Schouweiler
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