South Korea’s jazz music scene has many native musicians. Aside from the largely self-taught first generation, more and more Korean jazz students decide to study jazz seriously. Drummer Minchan Kim is one of the most visible native born musicians, as he has a wide range of experience playing at music festivals, events, concerts, and small venues. Kim studied jazz at Kyunghee University and currently resides in Seoul, South Korea.
Rooftop on the Hanok(RH): Talk about your background. How did you get involved with jazz?
Minchan Kim(MK): I was born in Daejeon, South Korea and was raised there. I started to play piano when I was five years old. I loved music and singing as a kid. I wanted to play all the instruments. I told my mom I just wanted to play instruments not learn anything else. One day, I saw a drummer on TV. I told my mom I wanted to learn it. She found a teacher. After the first day of learning the drums, I fell in love right away. The drum teacher taught an eight beat. It’s so simple. My heart raced. I felt it’s my thing. The clarinet and trumpet, two instruments I played up to that time, were too boring. You have to practice scales. With the drums, feelings instantly entered my heart. That’s why I started playing the drums.
For university, I went to Kyunghee University. I was in the postmodern music department, which is where the jazz department was located. It wasn’t that easy to get in because two hundred seventy five people applied for one spot. I passed the audition. I studied and met a bunch of musicians. Then from there I met a lot of musicians, people, and traveled abroad. My music career took off. Now I teach jazz at a university and play jazz music.
RH: Why did you choose jazz?
MK: I was more into fusion jazz up to university, but it was boring because it was all the same. It was all the same. There was no variation. I went to a jazz club and started to slowly get interested in traditional jazz. As I learned more details, I started to like it. At age twenty- six, I got the confidence to be a jazz musician.
RH: What types of jazz do you play?
MK: There’s a lot of different jazz people play. For me, I play straight ahead jazz. It’s like traditional jazz. Jazz should touch the people’s feelings. It’s mainstream American music from the 1920 to 1970s. In that period, people sang and danced to jazz. That history matches my inner feelings of what constitutes jazz. Some people play jazz like an art, as a type of beautiful music. But for me it’s more about the people and connecting with the individual. It’s a traditional medium and its best to keep with the tradition.
RH: Where do you perform? Do you only play in South Korea or do you also play abroad?
MK: I’m traveling a lot. I have been to thirty five to forty countries. I’ve been to maybe a hundred cities. The musician life is touring the world. You can go to different places and countries. In the future, I have a few tours coming up.
RH: What are your favorite countries and clubs to tour?
MK: Normally, I have many chances to visit Europe. I have many friends in Europe. My favorite venue to play at is called Marians Jazzroom. It’s in Bern, Switzerland. There’s a lot of history with the club. The owner’s wife loves jazz. He once sponsored the Newport Jazz Festival. The club brought many big name musicians to Switzerland. Each room has a lot of history. It’s like a jazz museum.
RH: What is your impression of the growth of the jazz scene in South Korea?
MK: It’s growing very fast. A lot of people studied music in Europe and the States. There are a lot of great musicians but at the same time there are a lot of people that follow the Korean ageist culture as well. For example, older musicians get paid better than younger musicians, regardless of skills. If a musician is older, they don’t like that younger musicians play better than them. It’s really bad for the music. Even worse, young people learn from the old and perpetuate the cycle. I want to change the vibe. I really want to change the culture. I constantly try to bring young cats to play with old cats. I try to respect all ages. Young musicians and old musicians both have a lot to contribute. Overall, the Korean scene is maturing.
RH: Do you have any favorite clubs to play in Seoul?
MK: I like All That Jazz. It still has audiences that love music. Other clubs have audience members that talk rather than listen to the music.
RH: What can you say about the jazz fans in Seoul?
MK: There are always a few good jazz fans. Some of them keep in touch. Some are really close with me. It’s case by case. If they respect the music, I respect them. It’s kind of mutual. Generally, Seoul jazz fans love the music. In Europe, all the old people come to the jazz clubs. It happens in Japan too. But in China and Korea more of the younger generations are trying to enjoy the music. Korea is unique in that way.
RH: Who are some rising stars on the Korean jazz scene?
MK: I think it’s me. I’m joking, actually. Maybe I’m too old? A definite rising star is Daniel Ko, a saxophonist. He’s got great musicianship. He’s world class. I can tour any country with him. He’s that good. We are quite close and often play together. We made a CD together too. He’s been here maybe three years. He’s in his mid- twenties.
RH: Do you think Koreans play a role in jazz globally?
MK: Maybe a few Koreans are playing a role. One bass player is named Ho Kiwan. He’s touring a lot and working with a lot of great musicians. Another piano player is doing the same. I’m trying to be like them, to be a good role model. Other guys leave Korea after they study outside.
I learned music from just doing it. The same goes with speaking English. I never studied out of the country. I learned in Korea. I really want to show young people they don’t have to go to America to learn jazz. I want to show there are other ways. You can study in Korea and still develop high- level musicianship.
RH: Are there any yearly events or festivals you might recommend to jazz afficionados?
MK: As you know, there are a lot of jazz festivals. One big one is Jarasum. Munrae Jazz Festival was two days ago. All the Korean musicians play there.
RH: What advice would you give aspiring jazz musicians?
MK: It would have to be that jazz musicians should understand the culture and history of jazz. People, and audiences generally, like to listen to the real thing. I just play my music. It’s connected to jazz because of my appreciation for the history.
RH: What is the future of jazz on the Korean peninsula?
MK: There probably are a lot of great jazz musicians coming up. Many young musicians have good environments and education. They might lead the Korean jazz scene very soon. I want to be part of that too. Seoul already has a lot of jazz clubs. I’m sure there will be a lot of clubs and fans in the future. I hope there will be more jazz clubs in Incheon and the rest of Korea.
Thank you for reading Rooftop on the Hanok’s interview with jazz drummer Minchan Kim. Kim has a Facebook profile and general inquiries can be directed to him there.
David Kute has an appreciation for Seoul’s distinct neighborhoods. From Dongdaemun’s market stalls to Hongdae’s rock music venues, the city continues to fascinate him. After spending many years living and working in Seoul and South Korea, he started the blog Rooftop on the Hanok. The blog is a place to share information as well as explore facets of life on the Korean peninsula. He enjoys writing fiction and playing basketball when he’s not researching or writing Rooftop on the Hanok posts.