“Jazz? Yes Please… As Long as There’s No Actual Jazz or Colored Folks!”

UPDATE (17 April 2010): I feel I ought to clarify one thing, but if I put it here, it won’t make sense, so I’m adding it to the end of the post.

ORIGINAL POST: There’s isn’t quite a sign up at the Incheon Airport saying that, but there might as well be.

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I was talking with a student I know about this. He was scrambling for a topic to do with Korea reception of Western popular culture (past and present) and I asked him who the most famous American rapper is in Korea.

Who is it? It’s Eminem. Maybe not among hardcore rap fans, but the first (and maybe only) American rapper most Koreans know about is Eminem.

Likewise, I observed that I’ve seen at least three clubs in different cities named “Bill Evans” but never one named “Thelonious Monk.” (And it’s not just because people can’t pronounce
“Thelonious Monk” here, either: when Koreans say “Led Zeppelin” it comes out “Red Jepperin” but I used to play at a club by that name, and it even managed to be the main rock club in Jeonju for a while!)

I’ve noticed it quite a bit. Jazz musicians are a different breed, of course. One Korean jazz musician whose work I’ve heard on CD clearly references Miles Davis; another I met on campus one day (practicing piano in a huge empty room) was very flattered when I compared the sound he was getting to McCoy Tyner.

But musicians, like I said, are a different breed. Who’s the most famous Western “jazz” trumpeter in Korea? Chuck Mangione. The most famous living jazz pianist? I don’t know, but I have noticed Chick Corea seems to play here every few years.  The most famous (and, unfortunately, the most-emulated) jazz guitarist is Pat Metheney.

What do they have in common? They’re white. Indeed, remember only ever seeing one foreign jazz group with black musicians play in Korea before. I’ve been to a number of shows, mind you. Sadly, I missed the Pharoah Sanders show about five years ago, and the Kenny Garrett show a year or two before that. The way things are going, though, I’ll probably never have a chance to see either of them in Korea again.

My student, anyway, told me something interesting. He said (mnistakenly) that there are no black musicians performing in this year’s Seoul Jazz Festival. He was wrong, but just barely — there are some black artists, they’re just not headlining. And not primarily jazz musicians, either, incidentally.

SJF2010_커뮤니티 (0401)

A Korean Times article boasts of how “Jazz Concerts Are Plentiful in May” but if you read between the lines, well, besides the fact they aren’t — most of what’s lined up for the Seoul Jazz Festival is pop music that very vaguely claims to draw upon jazz music — there’s the glaring absence of a single black headliner.

Here are the three headlining acts:

Wouter Hamel:


Dutch jazz singer. Like Inger Marie Gunderson, I really can’t blame him for being Northern European. I have nothing against white, blond-haired jazz musicians. (I have, in my life, been a white jazz musician, if not blond.) But like Inger Marie Gunderson, this is one of those white jazz musicians who is hugely famous in Korea and back in their home countries, but relatively unknown to the rest of the jazz world.By hugely famous, I mean that even people who haven’t seen them live know of them, have CDs, and are stocked in even medium-sized but “well-stocked” music shops.

(Some might think I’m being unfair, so I’ll add that Gunderson’s tour dates include gigs in Thailand at a festival, and in Tokyo at a club. And gigs in Norway. So we could say she’s famous in East Asia and Norway. And the sorrows of young Wouter (sorry couldn’t resist) must include that his live shows are mostly in Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium… oh, and Korea.)

And by the way, Wouter’s alternately billed as a pop singer and a jazz singer. Well, far be it from me to criticize, I happen to actually like the contribution Branford Marsalis made to a few of Sting’s albums, and so on… but was Sting being billed as jazz? The stuff I’ve heard of Wouter’s ranges from sorta-jazz to not-at-all. This is one of the sorta-jazz examples:

Next in the Korea Times article is:

Matt Bianco:

Um. White British rock group. No idea why they’re billed on “Stylish Jazz Night.”

Oh, wait, they’ve decided that cheap, shitty synthesizer pop backgrounds…

… were interchangeable with watered-down latin and swing jazz backings:

Well, that’s one way to make a comeback, I suppose. At least the European pop scene is starting to catch up to what was going on in the States back in the 30s. Sort of. But, like, not as skillfully:

Maybe I’m being mean. But with many years of listening to jazz in my background, all I can say is that Matt Bianco strikes me as jazzy pop, or, possibly, a pop caricature of jazz music.

Oh yeah, and they’re white.

Then there’s the third headlining group:


This group — really a duo who go by “Simone” and “Jonny” — is supposedly focused on in “acid jazz” and soul and drum’n’bass. Which, like, might sound like jazz if you’ve never heard any jazz before and were trying really hard to find some genre full of white people you could book for a concert in Seoul.

And though they may go by a single name like Prince used to do before he changed his name to a weird sigil thing, oh, brothers and sisters, are they ever shiny pale pasty chalky white!

And I’m not really talking so much about their skin color, as the allegiances of their music. It is blanched, parboiled electronica, so devoid of any of the traits of African-American popular music that it makes Abba look like a friggin’ government project to clone albino copies of Mahalia Jackson and the Reverend Timothy Wright. (Check out those tracks, they’re both amazing!) D’Soung may bill themselves as “acid jazz” but what someone at Curve hasn’t realized is that “acid jazz” is not jazz music.

No, it’s not.

No. Listen to me: I have played jazz. I have played “acid jazz.” Acid jazz is a kind of (usually electronic, jazz-sampling) dance music that has about as much in common with jazz as 노래방 has in common with 판소리. Yes, there are people who do acid jazz that is heavily jazz influenced, and who come to it with serious, serious jazz skills, such as, for example, Courtney Pine.

And yeah, okay, Incognito, sort of. Incognito was around when Talkin’ Loud was putting out samplers, so they get to be acid jazz, too. And Incognito is playing the Seoul Jazz Festival 2010, too, and they have Afro-British musicians.

But they’re not headlining. Nor are The Crusaders, the only group I remember seeing that had more than one black artist in all my years in Korea. (That is, besides an African drum group made up of African museum employees on Jeju Island, playing at the local “foreigner bar.”) Hmmm. Wonder why?

Perhaps it seems racist when I harp on the whiteness of the headliners, on the whiteness of all the jazz musicians who are most famous in Korea, but… well, whatever complexities exist in jazz history, one thing is for sure: it originated and was developed primarily through the creative work and struggle of African-American musicians. It has since become a global treasure, beloved by audiences and practiced by musicians of all races. I, as a white Canadian, spent many happy hours in the garage of my Chinese-Canadian drummer friend’s house with him and a couple of white kids practicing songs for upcoming gigs. The sax player I looked up to most in my high school, Jackie, was a Chinese Canadian girl. Ourt band’s bassist was a Japanese exchange student, and our drummer was a Ukranian Canadian. There wasn’t one black kid in our band, and I don’t think that robbed us of legitimacy, because we knew where the music came from. We struggled with Basie charts, even as we hacked apart Lennie Niehaus and Bob Minzter tunes. When we did small combo stuff, we played tunes popularized by Coltrane and Miles Davis more often than songs by Chick Corea or Steve Swallow.

We recognized what jazz was, and where it had come from. We sweat blood, some of us, to be worthy to stand up and play that solo on that repeating 12-bar, 16-bar, or whatever length solo we got on a Duke Ellington tune. We didn’t try to enfold ourselves in a world where all of jazz was people like Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz and Phil Woods, even if we also didn’t ignore those people.

I’m not arguing that whites, Asians, and people other other races cannot or should not play jazz. I’m saying that many of the world’s finest practitioners of the artform are African-Americans, just as has always been the case.

And I’m saying this festival lineup is doubly insulting to that tradition because (a) it is creating a mistaken understanding of what jazz is in Korea, and (b) it is very consciously whitewashing that tradition.

This, incidentally, does seem very specifically something special to Seoul, to Korea. I’m not sure how or why it worked out this way — and it may be the jazz scene is like this in China. The most recent Shanghai Jazz Festival seemed, again, to have a few black artists, and even Dee Dee Bridgewater as a headliner, it seems.

But in contrast, Japan has a long tradition of hosting black jazz artists for festivals and for engagements at clubs, especially in Tokyo. (And while the last Tokyo Jazz Festival had some of these same people in, including Young Wouter, they also had in McCoy Tyner (!!!) and Lou Donaldson, and their biggest pop attraction was George Clinton.) While the Bangkok Jazz Festival 2010 is a little white-heavy, its lineup is also relatively diverse with acts from all over Asia — something I think is a sign of health in the jazz scene — and at least Christian McBride was hired to come play, since he was in Asia for the Java Jazz Festival anyway.

Miss Gula recently that very festival — the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia — and having given her suggestions on who was worth seeing, I can attest to the fact that plenty of the biggest names in American jazz — most of them black artists — were in the lineup. (There were logistical and scheduling problems, cancelations, and whatever, but the lineup list at least gives an idea of what the festival organizers were attempting.) I’m talking David Murray, Hubert Laws, Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove (!), and people like that. Yes, they also had Roberta Gambarini, but beside, not instead of, those African-American artists I’ve mentioned. And, yeah, sure, they had pop artists. Toni Braxton, Sly Freakin’ Stone… what do these people have in common?

Oh yeah… they’re not white.

Anyway, maybe I’m sensitive to all of this, to the racialization and whitewashing of jazz, and so on, because I just finished the book Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War by Penny M. Von Eschen, a history of how the US State Department send jazz musicians out as part of their efforts at cultural outreach in competiton with the USSR. There’s a ton on the racialization (and deracialization) of jazz, as well as a couple of shameful moments of outright whitewashing of jazz — such as sending Benny Goodman to the USSR. (The US State Departemnt actually wanted to send a black artist, but the USSR declined.) In the course of those tours, it seems that one of the musicians sent abroad — and rather preferred because of his characteristically white (ie. patient, optimistic, sometimes starry-eyed-though-sympathetic) ideas about the civil rights movement in America — ended up in South Korea.

Guess who?

This guy:

Hm. Makes sense. In a kind of depressing way — not because I think all headliners ought to be black, but because it’s saddening how some people preferred to see headliners who were white, and who were likely to present a more moderate view of the civil rights struggle in America at the time when these tours were going on. Brubeck’s band was, like many at the time, “integrated” — which is a good thing. But… well, I’ll get into the buts when I discuss Con Eschen’s book.  But one wonders whether, had Duke Ellington or Diz or Louis Armstrong been sent here, how things might have been different. Maybe not much. Or maybe a bit.

Of course, it was not Gillespie, or Duke, or any of the other (black) musicians who was finally honored with an award for those tours. No, it was Brubeck. I don’t begrudge him the honor, but I recall him being on the cover of Time magazine and saying that, when Duke Ellington shows him the magazine, it was the worst day of his life because Duke deserved the honor. Brubeck didn’t mention any such misgivings in the interview I found from when he received a more recent honor in connection with the State Department Tours, though.

More on von Eschen’s book soon…and a fascinating, amazing book about a critical, important time — and the important, critical questions on the status of jazz, art, race, and power in America that met in the form of the State Department Jazz tours…

And if anyone has info on Brubeck’s gig in South Korea (it happened in late 1956 or early ’57, from what I gather), I’d love to see any news reports on the subject or whatever anyone has. If nothing turns up, I may go hunting for it myself…

UPDATED SECTION: I wrote about that I feel I should clarify one thing, and here it is.

It isn’t necessarily because of race that black jazz musicians seem to be less famous than white ones in Korea. There is one other factor I’ve noticed, which is that Koreans seem to like… er… how shall I put it gently? They seem to like music that is more uptight, and less free-wheeling. Most Koreans I know, when they think of the Beatles, think of the earlier stuff, not the White Album. I’ve known Koreans who got into jazz and, being exposed to both Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, seemed to naturally like Bill Evans without any racial reason at all — that kind of music appealed more to them.

This is, of course, to draw some artificial lines and say that white players play one way, and black ones play another way. But it is to say that there are tendencies. White jazz musicians of yesteryear definitely weren’t as often in the avant-garde as the black ones were, which is one reason why the politicization of jazz seemed to follow the musical styles musicians played: Dizzy Gillespie, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and other progressive black musicians also tended to be more radical and outspoken about civil rights issues and politics in America. More conservative jazz musicians tended more often to be less outspoken. (And while, as von Eschen shows in her book, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were far from apolitical, they were much less outspoken and cautious when they spoke of these issues in public.)

What I’m pointing at is an inherent aesthetic linkage between different sorts of politics, and different sorts of jazz music. It’s not all-encompassing, of course, but one can see how a political radical might find atonal jazz appealing; likewise, how a political or social conservative would be likely to prefer the familiar, “easier-to-enjoy” sounds of more traditional jazz.

And in that mix, Korean society in general seems, to me, across the spectrum, to be more socially and even politically conservative than the spectrum in a Western society. Little wonder some of the more interesting atonal jazz comes from Europe and from Blue States in the USA. Little wonder there’s more interest and nostalgia about old-fashioned jazz in Asia and in American Red States. Little wonder when Koreans say they like jazz and you ask which kind, it’s usually latin jazz (in the wake of the Wim Wenders documentary Buena Vista Social Club) or some white, traditionalist artist.

Or, this is my impression.

It still hardly suffices, if you ask me, as an excuse to why no jazz musicians at all, or bloack jazz musicians are playing at this festival; there are plenty of older, or more musically conservative, African-American performers of jazz today. Still, the festival was booked and set up and promoted by a company, not the Korean citizenry.

Festivals do have a responsibility, since they certainly can and do shape tastes — they’re absolutely the reason that particular musicians like Madeleine Peyroux, Inger Marie Gunderson, and Wouter are popular in Korea now even among people who did not see them perform at past festivals. That’s something I don’t begrudge them, but it is problematic since they’re being marketed as jazz and being consumed by people who think these artists are “jazz.” If it seemed to me that they were serving as a “gateway” to jazz for young people (and old?) in Seoul, I’d be all for it. But they don’t seem to be doing so in my experience, nor do they seem intended to do so, from the very programming of the festival. I’ll come out and say it: the Seoul Jazz Festival seems, year after year, to have been a concerted whitewashing project. The planners may or may not be doing it consciously, may or may not be responding to ticket sales. But they are, by the programming they choose, contributing significantly to the whitewashing (and the watering-down) of jazz in Korea.

But there’s a bigger picture to look at, too, and the aesthetics of Koreans when it comes to jazz may be influencing the festival programming to some degree. (To what degree the influence is flowing in each direction would be difficult to say, without talking to the people doing the bookings at the company that has put together the festival.)

5 thoughts on ““Jazz? Yes Please… As Long as There’s No Actual Jazz or Colored Folks!”

  1. Like rock and roll after it, jazz was absorbed into the wider, more white skinned, culture.

    While I know there are a number of black folks still performing the stuff, jazz is as pasty white as country.

  2. interesting article; thanks for writing it. I went to the Jaraseom Jazz Festival last year, where Dee Dee Bridgewater headlined, but those set lists, now that I think about, were also quite heavy on whitey.

    My experiences with Jazz here are pretty limited, but I think there should be a law that if your “Live Jazz Bar” advertises a “Jazz Band” and charges double for drinks, and that band includes a straight-up cover of a Maroon 5 song, followed by a straight-up cover of a Mariah Carey song, you have to return the extra money I paid for my drinks under the impression that jazz would be played.

  3. William,

    Be that as it may, there are still tons of black jazz performers, and this imbalance is out of proportion to other jazz festivals in Asia.

    It’s hard to think of mainstream “black” rock bands these days — I only know them from the old days, say, Fishbone and Living Color. But in jazz, many of the really big names are black. Those names almost never get a gig in Korea. Why Java can get Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove, and Korea can’t, may well be logistics — March is a less hospitable time for a jazz festival in Korea than in Thailand and Indonesia — but if they’re paying enough for three groups to come from Europe…

    Also, if jazz is white, it’s also Asian. But I have sincere doubts they’d bring in Sadao Watanabe (for the Seoul Jazz Festival, I mean), or even a jazzy Cui Jian, come and play if they don’t even have serious slots for Korean musicians. The message? Jazz is foreign and white.

    In my experience, serious jazz festivals still have an imbalance between consumers (pasty white) and performers (a mix, but with many more blacks than whites).


    Yeah, you know what? I’d never heard of the Jaraseom Festival, and the website is now a useless holding page saying “See you again!” but this article about a past festival in 2008 makes it look more in line with real jazz festivals. Still quite white-heavy, but at least there’s actual jazz there — Lovano, damn, I’m kicking myself for missing a chance to see him live. And they even brought in Sadao Watanabe. (I’m not crazy about his stuff, at least not the one example I own, but he’s a huge name and Japanese, meaning nearby. The degree to which music fandom can transcend national boundaries seems to me a question of how ardent and serious that music fandom is. So it’s heartening.)

    Now, if only they could get Toshiko Akiyoshi to play a gig here with her big band… That’s spin off some amazing stuff…

    When you went, did you stay and camp there, or did you just go for a day or two?

  4. I just went for one day, I saw Avishai Cohen and… the band formerly known as the Gipsy Kings. We went overnight, but had to miss the closing acts on Sunday night because of our train tickets. If you go next fall, bring a skateboard or a fold-up bicycle: there’s quite a lot of walking between venues, and from the site to town, where the better, non-concession food can be found.


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