Jazz Kerouac and the Jazz Men of Seoul
Before I started my photography business, I got lost in books. I still do, but not like I used to. I wasn't always a fan of reading until college. It was then that my friend Dennis turned me on to the Beat Generation. Up to that point, my literate life basically consisted of Cliff Notes and tattoo magazines.
But thanks to my mate Burns, my late teens and early twenties were filled with the likes of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Kesey. However, it was the stack of Jack Kerouac novels that I loved most.
Kerouac's staccato verse instantly produced mental images of cigarette wrinkled men blowing their horns with air as fast as their lifestyles. Just reading about it made me want to be a character in the book. I could visualize the scene, hear the jumpy beats and see the beatniks swaying and dancing.
Though, I didn't feel the need to patron the jazz clubs of North Carolina (Are there any?) to prove my visions correct. I perceived to know what jazz clubs were like simply by reading the prose of Beat Master Jack.
Fast forward a decade. No longer do I read Kerouac (Nor do I have the desire to jump in boxcar heading across the country). I have traded my love of Beat literature for a love of Canon and Fuji manuals.
Though I must admit, when a client sent me out for a look at Seoul's thriving jazz scene, I realized that I had the opportunity to again flirt with the scenes Kerouac once set for me. As a portrait photographer, Kerouac fan and musician (the later is debatable), photographing some of Seoul's jazz men was a welcomed editorial commission.
Spending several evenings in Seoul's jazz clubs, I did not find cramped, smoke filled basements and leathered jazz masters. There were no beatniks screaming, "Blow!" I couldn't find a trace of Charlie Parker or Dean Moriarity passed out under a table (Seriously, you must read On the Road no matter how cliche it may now seem). In fact, I found the exact opposite of what I had expected.
In Itaewon's All That Jazz, middle-aged Koreans sat nibbling on lavish cheese and fruit plates. Hongdae's Club Palm hosted lovers more interested in batting eyelashes at one another than the stand-up bass being plucked. Likewise, Once In a Blue Moon's dress code was surprising for even Apgujeong. I was almost turned away because I didn't have a sport's coat. Seriously, it just felt stuffy.
The closest my formative, Kerouac visions came to reality was in a small venue a stone's throw from Hongkik University in the hipster enclave of Hongdae. Without the pomp and circumstance of the other haunts, Club Evan serves bottled beers and crams youthful jazz fans as close to the stage as possible. While there is no blue smoke, there is a lively atmosphere that, I suspect, would make Kerouac proud.
With the editorial assignment finished, I found myself both satisfied with the images and the fact that I had actually been inside a jazz club. In fact, I had been in every jazz club in Seoul. Now, I am dealing with my desire to rummage through a sealed box or two to find some Kerouac novels.
"He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets IT- everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows its not the tune that counts but IT."
- J. Kerouac