Can you dedicate more than 40 years of your life to something without giving up?
Park Sung-yeon could.
Often referred to as the ‘Godmother of Jazz’ in Korea, Park Sung-yeon (박성연) is credited for paving the way for Korean jazz musicians since founding the jazz club ‘Janus’ in 1978.
After more than 40 years of dedicating her life to jazz, Park Sung-yeon passed away in August of 2020 at the age of 76 after a long battle with kidney failure.
In my own small way to commemorate the late artist, I’ve tried to piece together a short write on her life from available source material in English and Korean.
I hope this article can become a stepping stone to Park Sung-yeon’s work and her legacy for anyone who comes across this page.
Above: 1st generation jazz vocalist and the godmother of Korean jazz, Park Sung-yeon (Chosun Media, 2013)
US military and jazz
Park Sung-yeon grew up with music in the house.
Her family enjoyed music, particularly her father, and they owned music players she could use to listen to American artists like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.
She also recalled in an interview that her brother worked at a store in the US military stationed in Korea and got her a radio when she was young. She said she loved the songs on AFKN (American Forces Korea Network), the broadcasting service run by the US military at the time.
After graduating high school, Park Sung-yeon auditioned and started to perform for the 8th US Army (미8군) in Korea.
Performing for the US military is actually how a number of other legendary Korean artists of the era flourished – Patti Kim, Hyun Mi, Jo Young-nam just to name a few. They then brought their experiences to the wider audience thereafter.
The US military was a pivotal stage for many Korean artists in the 50’s and 60’s, including for first-generation jazz artists like Park Sung-yeon.
But jazz was not the most highly-demanded genre in the military and neither was it a familiar genre to the Korean public.
Both Park Sung-yeon’s love for jazz and her frustration at the lack of opportunities led her to create her own establishment. And on November 23rd, 1978, ‘Janus’ was born.
Named after the Roman god of beginnings, ‘Janus’ was the first jazz club in Korea created by a Korean. (‘All that Jazz’ had opened in Itaewon two years prior but the owner was Chinese and the club only welcomed foreigners.)
Janus drew Korea’s jazz musicians to its stage where they could play for the general public without any constraints. It was exactly the vision that Park Sung-yeon had for the club.
Keeping ‘Janus’ alive
But it’s probably safe to say that jazz isn’t a mainstream music genre in Korea – now or back in the day.
Financial struggles to keep the club afloat meant the club had five different locations since its inception in Sinchon.
Park Sung-yeon had to sell her mother’s house, and in 2012, she sold her decades-old collection of about 1000 LP records to support the club.
The club still operates as of May 2021, even after her passing in August of 2020.
Singing through deteriorating health
In 2015, Park Sung-yeon’s health deteriorated from her long battle with kidney failure and she moved permanently into a nursing home.
She also had to pass on the management of Janus to jazz artist Malo, who renamed the club ‘Diva Janus’ and has kept the establishment running since.
Even in Park Sung-yeon’s worsening condition in the years before her death, however, her love for jazz endured. We can see traces of that thanks to the people who supported her until the end.
In 2016, she participated in an album called ‘Janus, The Reminiscence’ organized by former Janus pianist Im In-gun.
‘The wind is blowing’ by Im In-gun and Park Sung-yeon
And in 2018, she performed at Janus’ 40th anniversary, marking the occasion with her rendition of none other than ‘My Way.’
Park Sung-yeon singing ‘My Way’ in Diva Janus, on the club’s 40th anniversary
‘The wind is blowing’ with Park Hyo-shin
In 2019, she collaborated with singer Park Hyo-shin (‘Snow flower’, ‘Wildflower’) and composer Jung Jae-il (Okja, Parasite) to bring out a new duet version of her song ‘The wind is blowing.’
Park Sung-yeon never married or had children but her legacy lives on – with her fellow musicians, with Janus, and with her work. She sings to us in her last recorded song,
“Let’s hold our hands together, we’re all living on this star for the very first time…”
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