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Jazz in Busan

Some cities are indelibly bound to a specific style of music—Chicago has the blues, Detroit has Motown, Nashville has country, Vienna has classical and San Juan has salsa. But every city has a jazz club tucked away somewhere within its borders; likely dimly lit with a small stage and a smoky feel, even in these smoke-free times. There is something about this music that makes it unique and places jazz in its own corner of the music world.

Jazz seems exclusive, says guitarist Gino Brann, but I think it should be more enjoyable when it’s done right. While other musical styles have lyrics to sing along to or a catchy hook that sticks in your ear, jazz requires a bit more patience. Says Brann, You need a jazz club in the same way you need an art museum.

As I walk into Busan’s Jazz Cat, a middle-aged man greets me so enthusiastically that I am sure he is the owner. Hi! Hello! Yes, come in! Welcome!  As he invites me to sit with him and his friends, I catch a glimpse of a disheveled man behind the bar with a wry smile on his face. As my new friend, Choi, informs me that the music has just finished, the quiet man behind the bar approaches.

This is the owner, announces Choi. Justin Lee extends his smile in lieu of a handshake, and we half-sit, half-lean against the bar. With a couple cozying up in the back corner, two or three young men sitting next to the stage, and a group of regulars at the center table, Jazz Cat isn’t busy on this random Tuesday night, which is just how Justin likes it. I ask him why he opened a jazz club, and a regular chimes in, Money! To make money! Justin smiles and shakes his head, saying that he is happy if the club makes money, but he opened it because he simply loves the music

Every city has a jazz club tucked away somewhere within its borders; likely dimly lit with a small stage and a smoky feel, even in these smoke-free times.

Jazz Cat is a place for people who love music. Justin, who also composes and plays, opened his first jazz club (Carpe Diem) three years ago in Changwon, and started a small, annual jazz fest there. When the bartender asks how many instruments he plays, Justin pauses a moment before simply holding his hands wide and spreading them above his head. And he plays well. While I discuss music with the bartender, Choi and the three young men take their positions on stage, and begin warming up. Justin grabs a worn upright bass from the corner and sits in with them. As the music starts, all eyes turn toward the group of players, and, unbelievably, everyone in a Kyungsung bar falls silent.

The atmosphere is as laid back as any venue in Kyungsung, providing a spot to relax and unwind. Every other Monday features a jazz jam with some of Busan’s finest musicians. The bar occasionally books touring bands, but most nights are de facto open mic nights, providing a space for anyone to bring an instrument and play. Some of these novices will no doubt end up around the corner; on stage at the neighborhoods other jazz bar, Monk.

The oldest jazz club in Busan, Monk has the well-earned reputation as the best in town (more than one musician described the sound as ‘impeccable’). The old chalkboard calendar has been replaced by a much more modern whiteboard, but every date is still just as full. With live music every night from 9 to 11 and jazz-related documentaries and concert videos playing before and after, there is no mistaking it for a typical bar. Even during occasional moments of silence, this dim, candle-lit basement screams ‘jazz.’

Opened in 1992 by a local doctor and jazz aficionado, Monk has stood the test of time. When I ask sound engineer Yang Don-kyu why that is, he laughs, telling me that Monk’s long history is due to the pride the owners take in operating a ‘cultural place.’ While the room is rarely full on a typical weeknight, there are customers of all ages and backgrounds. According to Yang, The customers usually like music, money and sex.

The nightly lineup now consists of a rotation of about fifteen regular local bands and jazz projects, with an occasional touring act from Seoul or Japan taking the stage. There is no other place in Busan to see the caliber of music that happens at Monk.

The celebrated group Page One has pared their schedule down to every other Tuesday, but they remain among the most impressive jazz ensembles in town. A Monday night jam promises something different every week, and Jazz Point is a highlight of alternating Saturdays. After the night’s act has finished, the stage is open for anyone who wants to play.

While there are certain forms that have a more modern feel, the art and what it means stay the same ?making jazz a timeless genre. And while nearly every style of music has room to ad-lib, jazz is defined by it.

Trumpet player Gordon Bazsali Jr. tells me, There are some musicians who can’t not wing it. The improvisation is baked into the pie. Whereas other genres may allow musicians some space, says Bazsali, jazz demands free playing.

As I watch another group on stage at Jazz Cat, this is remarkably clear. While the drummer seems to play with his eyes closed, the guitarist and trumpet player read sheet music. After a couple times through the main theme, and with no visible signal from anyone, the trumpet solo begins. As the guitarist takes his turn, I tell myself that I saw them give each other a look, but I’m not entirely sure. Talented musicians simply know when it’s time to move on.

Some jazz around Busan

Club Monk (Kyungsung)
The original and still the best place in town to see live jazz nightly.

Jazz Cat (Kyungsung)
Live jazz every other Monday, plus a nightly jazz jam.
Interplay (PNU)
PNU staple, brings in some of the bigger name Korean acts from trios to big band.
Ol’ 55 Cavern Bar (Kyungsung)
Alternates weeks with Jazz Cat, on Tuesdays. Great live music many nights.
The Back Room (Haeundae)
Thursday night jazz with Crossnote, with a great atmosphere to match.




About Seth Fellenz

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