An Interview with Martin Zenker
A Veteran Jazz Musician Shares His Experiences on the Korean Peninsula
One aspect of life in Seoul is the local jazz scene. Live music is one of the underappreciated elements that Seoul offers, and the jazz scene has largely expanded in recent decades. Big and small venues alike are found throughout central Seoul, as well as sizeable audiences and technically proficient musicians. Martin Zenker is a veteran of the South Korean jazz scene, and has much to share about the past and current state of jazz in the Hermit Kingdom. He studied bass at the Munich Conservatory and graduated in 1991. Since then, he freelanced as a musician for fifteen years and worked in South Korea. Currently, he is working at Munich University as a bass teacher and at the Mongolian State Conservatory as head of the jazz department.
Rooftop on the Hanok: Discuss your first days in South Korea. Why did you come? What was the jazz scene like when you first arrived in South Korea? How was it different than other countries?
Martin Zenker: The first time I visited Seoul was in March 2003, visiting a bass player from Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. He recommended “All That Jazz” to me, which I believe was more or less the only real jazz club back then. I remember seeing Im Dalkyun and Lee Jongheun that night, who later became good friends. Jazz seemed to have much less of a tradition back then than it had in Europe or Japan, but definitely more than India or China, which I had toured before.
Rooftop on the Hanok: How did you meet jazz musicians in Seoul in those days? Do you remember the first jazz clubs you played?
Martin Zenker: The first guys I met were Im Dalkyun, Chris Varga, and Kenji Omae. I sat in at some gigs, and Chris Varga invited me to play at some festival. So for a few years, I would come to visit and play several times a year, mostly at clubs like “All That Jazz,” “Mo Better Blues,” and personal favorite “Club Palm.”
Rooftop on the Hanok: What were your years in South Korea like? Did you contribute to the appreciation of jazz in the country?
Martin Zenker: Well, the scene in Korea became massive and if I contributed, it was probably just a little share. I think it was right around the time I started teaching at Kyunghee University, 2008 or so, when the exodus of Korean jazz students to Berkeley, North Texas, and NYU started. I hope I contributed my share and helped people to find, appreciate, and keep their own true voice in this music. Of course, during four years of teaching you leave a certain footprint, at least with some people, I guess.
Rooftop on the Hanok: Do you think the jazz scene has improved since your first days in Korea? What are some positive changes that have been made?
Martin Zenker: Absolutely! Now the exodus to the U.S. is reversed and all the cats come back. On a technical level, it has definitely improved and there are a lot of great players. On the other hand, there is pressure to be unique and the competition has grown. Not everybody can handle so much competition. It’s a global problem, actually. But jazz is certainly a bigger part of the cultural environment in Korea than it was fifteen years ago, and there is a downside to it as well, such as commercial entrepreneurs trying to shape the market.
Rooftop on the Hanok: Do you have any suggestions for changes?
Martin Zenker:It may sound awkward, but I believe— not just in Korea but almost anywhere in the world— that university jazz programs are too big. In my opinion, jazz education should be free and the auditions for entry into university programs should be much harder. The universities are putting out way too many students, more than any market can handle. It means very high competition and a very low salary. It also results in lower quality music, lower fan appreciation, and ultimately, into more teaching for professors and experienced musicians. The increase has led to a bubble of sorts and I think it is unfair to most students, but again, that’s not just a Korea-wide problem.
Rooftop on the Hanok: Is South Korea still a significant spot for you?
Martin Zenker: It definitely is. A few of my favorite musicians live there, there are great gigs and opportunities around, and I still have lots of friends. Additionally, I currently live in Mongolia and Seoul is the closest big city that I can visit without a visa. I usually visit Seoul three to four times a year and I consult the Korean Culture Institute in Berlin, Germany for their annual JazzKorea Festival.
Rooftop on the Hanok: What’s your favorite memory of South Korea? Were there any memorable gigs?
Martin Zenker: There were honestly too many to mention. But some of my nicest memories are playing at “Club Palm,” which was like my living room. I used to live just a couple of blocks away in Sangsu- dong. Sitting on that little veranda during the break with a cold beer and watching the Hongdae life was special. Unfortunately, the club has disappeared. It was a true jazz club thanks to the owner, Mr. Kong.
Rooftop on the Hanok hopes you enjoyed the interview with Martin Zenker as much as we did. To learn more about Martin Zenker, visit his website.