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Entertainment & Arts

Ryu Bok-sung is the king of jazz in South Korea

Ryu Bok-sung was a teenager fiddling with his radio dial in rural South Korea when he chanced upon a strange new music he couldn’t name, but it struck an immediate emotional chord.

It was the mid-1950s, and Ryu had tuned to the Armed Forces Radio network popular with U.S. troops. When the boy heard the tune “Straight No Chaser,” played by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, he reveled in its staccato-fire jazz saxophone riffs and melodious trumpet solos and knew his life was changed forever.

“I’ve been obsessed with the music ever since I first heard it,” says Ryu, now 72. “I didn’t even know what the music was. But I was hooked immediately and knew that I had to play that music.”

For decades, Ryu has been a popular jazz drums and percussion player who has helped introduce his adopted music to a hard-driving nation unaccustomed to its free-spirited improvisation.

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Now South Korea is paying its respects to its own godfathers of jazz. A recent documentary titled “Bravo Jazz Life” features Ryu and six other musicians. And on Friday Ryu and others will hold the second of two concerts. The first show in December before a crowd of 200 was so successful that fans demanded a reprise performance, this time in a venue seating 2,500.

Jazz critic Nam Moo-seong, who directed the documentary and produced the two concerts, said the time was right to make sure South Korea appreciates its own roots of jazz. “Without these people, there would be no ground for jazz in Korea,” he said. “A lot of them are dying. So somebody needed to tell these musicians’ story.”

Throughout his career, Ryu has not only mastered such instruments as the jazz drums, bongos and congas, he’s pondered why his countrymen have made such a deep connection to the music. African Americans spent generations as an enslaved people, he says, and Koreans also suffered a half-century of Japanese occupation.

“Jazz started out from people who were suppressed. And Koreans were suppressed too,” he said. “I find a connection there.”

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But there have been sour notes, his passion for the music damaging his personal life. Ryu’s obsession with buying better instruments and tens of thousands of jazz records ended his only marriage, his wife eventually walking out with the couple’s four daughters. Now divorced, estranged from his children, he is uncomfortable discussing that part of his past.

With his buzz-cut white hair and relaxed posture, Ryu exudes the cool confidence of a younger Seoul hipster. At one recent gig, he wore a John Coltrane T-shirt and military cargo pants, making the rounds to joke with customers. But the easygoingness vanishes onstage, where Ryu works his instruments with boyish energy and inimitable virtuosity.

Now in his 54th year of performing, Ryu likes to tell how he found the music and the music found him. Soon after hearing Coltrane and Davis, the teenage son of a small-town timber dealer made several excursions to music markets in Seoul to find a name for the mysterious new music.

At the time, the South Korean peninsula was emerging from three years of civil war. Much of Seoul lay in ruins. “Of course it was a tough time, and finding that music was a hard quest,” said Ryu. “Still, I had to.”

Finally, he found what he was looking for. “I walked into a radio store. There were classical records on the top, Elvis and American pop records on the second and the third shelf. And then there were records that were scattered on the ground,” explained Ryu.

“The owner of the shop told me that those records were from African American soldiers from the U.S. Army base and that they were of no good use. But by instinct I knew that was the music I was looking for and bought them all at a bargain.”

Soon, he began hanging around the U.S. military base, trying to catch jazz performances staged for American soldiers. As a sophomore in high school, he joined the stage crew for a jazz band that played for the troops — handling lighting and taking care of instruments.

As a member of his school marching band, Ryu had already picked up the drums. Listening to the jazz drummer during performances, he made the musical transition to jazz. He practiced on apple boxes. Finally a band member lent him Buddy Rich’s drum instruction book, which he memorized in months.

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He scouted stores selling vintage goods from U.S. Army bases, looking for jazz magazines such as Down Beat and Metronome. Ryu couldn’t read the words, but he pored over the images.

He was eventually hired to play for a band on base. “But I didn’t have any experience playing the jazz standards, so on the first day of rehearsal I got fired. In the first years I was fired a total of seven times.”

Jazz also introduced Ryu to his wife, a jazz vocalist who invited the twentysomething performer to her house to practice. “When I got to her place, she was there in her nightgown, and she kissed me,” he recalled. “That was my first time being with a woman, and I madly fell in love.”

The couple later married and started a family. But Ryu admits making mistakes. He was more committed to jazz than to his family, using money he could have used to buy a house instead on purchasing records. He eventually amassed a collection of 30,000. “Record collecting is like a drug,” he said. “You can’t just give it up.”

Meanwhile, his wife and daughters survived on ramen noodles and struggled to find room in their home with his growing record collection.

Eventually his wife left him, taking the couple’s daughters. Heartbroken, he soothed his pain through jazz. Although he regrets some of his personal choices, he still lives for his music. He still wants to tour and hopes to soon travel to the U.S., the home of the syncopated rhythms that have shaped his life.

“I want to perform abroad,” he says. “And it won’t be just imitating American jazz standards. I want to play a music that only I can play. I’m at the height of my career. Now I understand what jazz really is.”

Choi works in The Times’ Seoul bureau.


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