BUSAN, South Korea – If you’re searching for the heart of the Busan jazz scene, you can narrow it down to one singularity in the space-time continuum: Tuesday nights at Monk. It’s not the beginning or the end, but it is the place to start. While other jazz clubs in Busan have come and gone, Monk has survived. Another survivor is its long-time Tuesday night inhabitants Page One, led by guitarist Choi Sung Joon (???) and featuring Gordon Bazsali Jr. on trumpet and Choi Chang Geun (???) on saxophone.
Page One is, quite simply, the most talented gathering of musicians you will find in the city. Every performance is not only an education in jazz tradition, it’s a journey through the collective experience of musical performance and appreciation, with experts guiding you every step of the way. In a single set, they may blister through a Coltrane tune, funk up some Herbie Hancock, and swim through the warm, slow currents of a Dexter Gordon ballad. It’s a band that feeds off of improvisation and experimentation. Every player knows his instrument with such intimacy and skill that soloists are free to not only soar above the clouds, but change things up mid-flight.
While the American jazz tradition is steeped in urban folklore, Page One’s story—and in fact the story of the current Busan jazz scene itself—begins in the halls of academia. Choi Sung Joon, a music professor at Busan Arts College, started the project almost 12 years ago as an opportunity for his best students to gain live playing experience. Many of those players have gone on to success leading their own bands or becoming music professors. In the process, Page One has evolved into an outfit comprising some of the best performers the city has to offer.
Bazsali Jr. entered the picture 10 years ago. Fresh off the plane from Chicago, he wandered into a Nampo-dong jazz club called ???? (1,000 years) to find Page One playing there. “I told them during their break that I thought they were great and that I’m a trumpet player,” he recalled. “They said ‘OK, bring your horn next week.’ So I brought my horn and I’ve been playing with them ever since.”
“Them” is actually now down to “him.” Since he joined, the band has gone through so many changes that at this point Bazsali Jr. and guitarist/bandleader Choi Sung Joon are the only original members left. Two years ago, Sung Joon did a major reshuffling effort which led to the band’s current line-up. One of the new members is actually an old disciple of his, saxophonist Choi Chang Geun. “I was his student in college. I was the only one who could play saxophone well at that time. I didn’t know what jazz was at the time. I was classically trained. He said ‘You play saxophone, that’s it. Come with me,’” he recalled.
Chang Geun, who prefers to go by his family name “Choi,” played in the band briefly before moving to Vancouver, Toronto and New York City to soak up the jazz scenes there. Upon his return to Busan in 2007, he got a job teaching at Busan Arts College and soon found himself reunited with Choi Sung Joon and Bazsali Jr. in Page One. The band has been consistent ever since, albeit not as active as one might hope. Tuesday nights at Monk is the band’s only gig. “I just do it for fun now,” Bazsali Jr. says. “Music is not my bread and butter. But if I didn’t do it, I’d go nuts.”
I sat down with Choi and Bazsali Jr. one Tuesday night to talk about Page One and jazz music in Busan.
Busan Haps: Tell me about how the jazz scene has changed in the city since you guys have been playing.
Gordon: About five years ago, there were at least five or six places that had jazz regularly. (In Kyungsung) there was Fly Me To The Moon. In Gwanganli, a place called…
Choi: …Giant Steps.
G: Right. And another place called Jazz Styles and two clubs in Nampo-dong. So that’s five clubs right there. Plus Monk, which was in the same building, but in a different location. And now it’s pretty much just this place (Monk) as far as I know. There are no other places that have regular jazz.
BH: Why did that happen?
G: About five or six years ago, there were a ton of students, a ton of players. So you needed places to play. A lot of those guys recently have decided to go to Seoul to play.
C: Everybody wants to go to Seoul. Here in Busan, there aren’t many bass players or drummers.
G: They haven’t all left. Some of the guys who do play in Seoul also play here at Monk. A lot of guys go back and forth. We both did that for a while.
BH: Have either of you ever thought of moving up there?
C: Not at all. For me, it’s all about the people here. I just want to play with these guys here like Gordon, the best trumpet player in Korea right now.
G: Stop it.
C: I’m serious!
BH: You all seem to have a really good vibe on stage together.
G: Every gig is different. We never play a song the same way twice. That’s just the nature of jazz.
C: We don’t practice at all.
G: We get together right before the gig and work out the beginnings and endings. That’s it. What happens in between is jazz.
BH: Choi Sung Joon is not only a great guitar player, he’s the band leader. Can you talk about him a little?
G: The way I see it, he’s become the glue that holds the scene together. Without him, we wouldn’t have a scene. He leads by gently guiding us along and letting us just get on with it. If there’s any confusion or there’s a conflict, he’s the last word.
C: He’s the boss.
BH: Gordon, what’s it like being the only foreigner in the band?
G: (laughs) It’s great. He (Choi Sung Joon) never yells at me. I want to think it’s because I’m doing the right thing, but I’m also protected a bit because I’m a foreigner. I’ve known him for so long. We’ve been friends for 10 years. I think we understand each other well.
BH: Since Monk is really the only legitimate jazz spot in Busan now, can you talk about the club and the owner?
G: Dr. Yang. (???) He is a jazz aficionado. He’s written at least one book on jazz. He’s the man. I can’t imagine the jazz scene without him. This place books jazz every night. They bring in bands from out of town and outside of Korea as well.
BH: Any last thoughts?
C: Come by and see us play!
G: And if you’re a musician, come out to the club. Monday nights are open mic. There are always chances to play.
Photos by Mike Dixon