Michelle Mercer, How A Korean Jazz Festival Found A Huge Young Audience, A Blog Supreme from NPR Jazz, January 12, 2016.
It was like discovering a parallel reality.
After completing a sponsored trip to South Korea for music professionals in October, I stayed in the country, striking out on my own. I grabbed a train to the Jarasum International Jazz Festival, a couple hours from Seoul, and arrived in the middle of a set by the international power pairing of Paolo Fresu, Omar Sosa and Trilok Gurtu.
I did a double take — and then a triple take. A huge audience of mostly twentysomethings was smiling and dancing, showing big love for the music. I looked around for a plausible explanation. Was a K-pop video being projected on a screen near the jazz trio? No, a festival volunteer explained — the crowd's enthusiasm was all for the improvising trumpeter, pianist and percussionist onstage. Younger people, he said: They like jazz.
"Stepping onstage at the Jarasum Jazz Festival is like stumbling into an alternate universe where jazz is suddenly young, hip, sexy and cool," says Joshua Redman, the celebrated American saxophonist.
After Redman performed at Jarasum a few years ago, festival director In Jae-jin remembers the saxophonist saying he wanted to take half of the audience home to the U.S. In has gotten used to hearing that sort of thing.
"Actually, so many international guests are so surprised to see the young audience in Korea, especially for this festival," In says. "Wherever you attend jazz festivals, normally the audience is over 50 or even 60, but at my festival they are in their 20s and 30s."
Now in its 12th year, the Jarasum Jazz Festival regularly draws between 200,000 and 250,000 people over three days. Jarasum estimates that 88 percent of its 2015 audience was under age 40. To put this demographic in perspective, the numbers are basically flipped at the Newport Jazz Festival, where a 2012 survey found that 82 percent of its audience is over age 45.
The art of jazz is flourishing, we know, with young musicians developing the music all over the world. But the business of jazz sees much hand-wringing over the music's aging audience, its sea of gray hair. And nowhere in the world have I seen a jazz audience as young as at Jarasum: The crowd felt anachronistic, like a 21st-century resurrection of jazz's swing-era popularity.
From the web page for the 2020 festival:
In 2004, when the first festival was held, there was no other music festival that massive audience participated, thus most people were wondered why. However, the festival's focus has been only jazz for 17 years. Jazz includes various subcategories such as swings, fusion, bossa nova, bebop, and world music. The fact that Jarasum Jazz introduces different types of music under name jazz is the major role of the festival. Moreover, through ‘Jarasum International Jazz Concurs,’ ‘Jarasum Creative Music Camp,’ and ‘Korea Jazz Showcase, the festival tries to find talented jazz musicians. Jarasum Jazz created new leisure culture like never before: 'festival like a picnic that you do not need to know the music.' Jarasum Jazz does not compromise the music, but by delivering enjoyable experience, the festival contributes on publicizing jazz.
I wonder how things are going now for Jarasum?
Lee Mergner, Jarasum International Jazz Festival Reviewed, Jazz Times, April 25, 2019.
I was recently invited to the Jarasum International Jazz Festival, which is like a Korean jazz version of Bonnaroo-a large music festival attended by over 100,000 people and held over three days in a park and campground about 60 km northeast of Seoul, near a small town called Gapyeong. The word Jarasum translates basically to Turtle Island, because the park area is in a valley surrounded by small mountains that are said to resemble a turtle. The park is a popular tourist destination for native Koreans during the non-winter time and features beautiful mountain views and all sorts of water sports. The camping grounds of the park were filled all three days with every kind of tent and camper. They even pitched tents on the same fields where the audience listened to the performances, which took place on 10 different stages, as well as at venues in the nearby town.
The audience was composed almost entirely of younger people, but also included lots of young families, a site not often seen at jazz festivals in the U.S. The festival felt like more like an annual outing for family recreation, much like a 4th of July picnic in America. And, yes, there were fireworks on at least two of the nights, which, given the topography of the site, made for sensational views. I’m guessing that for many, the bucolic camping and picnic experience combined with the fireworks and overall see-and-be-seen vibe made it a worthwhile trip no matter who the headliner was.
My sense was that the audience was not really a jazz audience and wasn’t necessarily there just for the music, though they are very respectful and attentive in a way that American audiences rarely are. No shushing or angry backward looks toward people talking loudly during the music were necessary here. Even the most run of the mill local acts got a quiet and receptive audience, but if they didn’t produce as performers they got that same silent treatment at the end of their set. No polite golf claps. Conversely, when talented performers played with intensity and verve, the audience responded in kind. I had heard from various American jazz artists such as Kenny Barron and John Scofield, who have played the festival in the past, that the size and responsiveness of the audience made for a special experience. “I felt like a rock star there,” Barron told me before my visit.
The music at the festival fell under the wide umbrella of jazz with nary a K-pop artist to be found onstage. Perhaps there were some in the audience like at the Seoul Jazz Festival this past May when Chanyeol from EXO made a very public appearance at a Jamie Cullum set. However, since so many of the young people dressed like K-pop stars, I wouldn’t have known the real thing if I stepped on his or her white-shoe-clad foot. The headliners for this year’s festival included Oregon, Lucky Peterson, Manu Katché, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Bugge Wesseltoft and Caetano Veloso. Every year the festival spotlights a country and this year it was France (next year will be Israel) and besides a mainstage appearance by Katché, there were sets from Henri Texier, the Airelle Besson Quartet and La Caravane Passe. Most of the acts, however, were Korea-based and reflected the wide diversity of styles that could be called jazz-from swinging big bands playing standards to more experimental acoustic music to funky neo soul and good old hard-driving postbop.
Judging the locals:
Along with the Korean jazz pianist Ji Young Lee and bassist Kim Changhyun, as well as Denis Le Bas from the Jazz Sous Les Pommiers festival in Normandy, France, I was asked to judge a competition called Jazz Concours, in which four young Korean jazz artists performed 20-minute sets and were rated according to their technical mastery, creativity and presence/showmanship, with the winner receiving cash and a gig on the mainstage at next year’s festival. I enjoyed all four about equally and had a rough time choosing a favorite in all the categories, although in my view they all rated poorly in the showmanship criterion, a common problem among young jazz musicians.
Stage presence aside, the playing was on a high level commensurate with their jazz and music schooling in both Korea and the U.S. (Berklee is a particular favorite of young Koreans). The pianist Kyumin Shim was a student of Jason Moran and it showed in his mastery of a range of styles from stride to bop to post-modernism. I think the winner, saxophonist Sunjae Lee, stood out particularly to the Korean judges in large part because his composition “Breathe” dealt with the plight of the young victims of the ferry accident in 2014, an incident that has been seared into modern Korean culture and is still unresolved today as protests abound about the government’s handling of the tragedy. Lee’s melancholy rendition seemed to have a visceral impact on the audience and both Lee and Kim mentioned how important it is for the country’s jazz artists to have a social or political message to their music.
In addition to attending the festival, I also spent a week in Seoul attending the Performing Arts Market Seoul (like a Korean APAP) and exploring the city’s jazz and music scene. Along with my daughter, who lives in Seoul, and the pianist John Chin and his girlfriend Mara Stepe, we made the rounds of jazz clubs in Seoul, including the funky Club Evans in the uber-youthful Hongdae neighborhood (think a Korean Williamsburg), where we saw an energetic set by the Singapore-based jazz funk group the Steve McQueens, who had also performed at Jarasum. Later in the week we stopped by the Dizzy’s-like All That Jazz in the more Western neighborhood of Itaewon for a performance by my fellow competition judge-the bassist Kim Changhyeon and his trio, heavily influenced by Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio. On another night, John checked out Once in a Blue Moon in the Gangnam area, while I visited a little hotel club in the Insadong arts district, which featured a young trio of Gi Won Shin (piano), Jae Wan Mun (bass) and Du Yong Song (drums), with cameos from saxophonist Yong Su Kim. We were able to hear live jazz virtually every night and it seemed that each venue featured not only the usual jazz photos and posters, but also shelves of vintage jazz vinyl. Indeed, at those clubs and some others, vinyl listening parties are all the rage.