At the height of her popularity in Korea, jazz pianist Song Young-joo swiftly set off for the United States, where she knew few and few knew her. It may not have been her first time in the country, but she had never felt so out of place.
"And yet it was difficult making the decision to return to Korea after spending four years in New York," Song said in a recent interview. "I had wanted to branch out and succeed as a jazz pianist in New York, and while I did achieve a lot, it wasn't easy."
During her time in the global power city, Song became the first Korean to land a performance at the exclusive Blue Note Jazz Club, one of the world's most famous jazz venues. She attributed much of her success to knowing the right people ― she had made a name for herself while studying at the Manhattan School of Music and the Berklee College of Music.
"One of the managers at the Blue Note Jazz Club was Korean-American, and a friend of a friend of mine," she recalled. "She did hesitate, wondering whether a Korean musician would draw audiences, but then again, that's what hallyu (Korean wave) is all about, right?"
Song was given the chance to perform on Monday or Tuesday nights. But when her first performance sold out, she was asked to return to the club to perform during prime time slots. Her trio will perform solo for the fourth time at the exclusive club in July.
Song found it difficult to adjust to New York and to jazz the first time she flew to the U.S. for school. She had been a classical piano major while studying in Korea, and experienced culture shock when she realized how free-spirited and liberal jazz musicians were.
"Learning the music was like learning a whole new culture," she said.
The lifestyle of jazz musicians was completely different from the lifestyle she had led in Korea. She had been shy _ an exemplary student and devoted Christian _ so adapting to the nightlife and endless nights of clubbing had been easier said than done. Song also experienced financial difficulties that forced her to take a waitressing job.
But luck was on her side the second time around. In 2010, after landing in New York without the support of an agency or manager, she came across a jazz club by chance, where she learned that the booking manager was an old school friend. She landed a job at the club, which led to a job at another club, and so on.
She went on to perform at the Smalls Jazz Club, the Cornelia Street Cafe, Jazz at Kitano and finally the Blue Note. In April 2013, she set off on an Asia tour with her trio and in August, a Japan and Korea tour.
Unfortunately, it wasn't always smooth sailing.
"Though we may speak English, living in another country is difficult," she said. "Because Jazz didn't originate in Korea, I always felt this need to have other musicians approve of my music, which only lowered my self esteem."
She added, "When I became confident about my music, other musicians, as well as audiences, began to appreciate it for what it was ― Korean-style jazz. Jazz may not be from Korea, but to reach the bar, I needed to show them how I could add a bit of me into jazz."
Upon her arrival in Korea in February, Song released her sixth album titled "Between," and will be holding a series of concerts to mark her comeback. On April 30, she will hold a small concert in commemoration of International Jazz Day, and on May 17, she will participate in the Seoul Jazz Festival. Noteworthy in this album is her collaboration with jazz guitarist Mike Moreno, vocalist Sachal Vasandani and drummer Kendrick Scott.
"My last album, ‘Tale of a City,' was very energetic, much like I was when I arrived in New York in 2010," she said. "This time, I went for lyrical and sentimental."
Song says that one of the most important traits a jazz musician must have is his or her ability to improvise and "go with the flow." And while she says it would be great if jazz musicians could rise to stardom here in Korea, she believes that there is no point forcing it.
"Jazz is not popular music," she said. "But that's why I love it. It's music that changes because I shape it that way, not because of an audience or need."
She added, "Most people find Jazz difficult, but no one loves an espresso to begin with. Jazz can seem unorganized and abstruse, but you have to keep in mind that there's no right answer to Jazz."