Who are the people in The Jazz Workshop? In the hopes of answering that question, from time to time we’ll feature one of our students.
This month, we invite you to meet Franco Luong, a bassist who’s been in the Workshop for about a year now.
I’m Franco Luong. I’m a computer geek for a living. I used to be a Network Engineer but these days I’m more of a Software Engineer / Systems Engineer hybrid. I live in Reston, VA.
I’m a dancer as well. I’ve spent a lot of years doing Lindy Hop and Balboa, dancing to swing era Jazz. And I’ve dabbled in digital photography.
In 4th grade elementary school, I played Baritone horn. Then in 5th or 6th grade, I was in the chorus. I think I actually stuck with that for a fair bit but didn’t carry onward once I moved on to Junior high.
Then, for many years, nothing until I got started on bass guitar during my senior year of high school and on into college. I didn’t know what I was doing — just picked up the instrument because it was in the closet. (A cast-off from my dad’s band days.)
I learned tunes by ear mostly because I couldn’t read. Mostly easy pop tunes that were on the radio in the 1990s although every now and then someone would find out that I play bass and tell me I need to check out Rush, or Primus, or Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Eventually, someone told me to check out Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten and I learned what musical ambition could sound like. I think that might have a lot to do with me wanting to learn jazz because it all seemed so preposterously out of reach.)
Eventually, when I finished school, I found a great bass teacher. And I had a number of years where I played bass in local bands. I found that satisfying for a while but it’s hard to find a group of people you mesh with musically. I eventually got antsy in just about every band I ever signed up for… except for one.
So, I was in a musical lull. I hadn’t been playing at all for a few years. Eventually, my girlfriend Liz noticed that her niece, an aspiring actress in LA, had been learning ukulele and mused that it would be so much fun if we could both get ukes and learn to play. So we did.
That was about 2014 or so. I was in a strange space… trying to find some meaning in my life. Maybe to start a business? But doing what? Answers were hard to come by.
After attending a concert by ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro in 2015, I was inspired and decided to put myself on the path to mastery. What if I practiced every day for a decade… always pushing the bounds of my ability? Half an hour a day doesn’t get you to 10,000 hours in 10 years. It gets you to about 1800 hours. But half an hour a day was what I could commit to so it’d have to do.
I committed myself so deeply to the self-study of Ukulele that I started spending hours each day practicing and studying music theory.
A couple years into it… I attended the Strathmore Uke Fest in 2017 and
I got to see Benny Chong, aka “Uncle Benny”, who played guitar backing Don Ho in Hawaii. He had assembled a pick-up combo with a couple of attendees: a singer and her bass-playing guitarist husband. I loved it! It was an amazing performance given that they never played together before. I saw a lot of jazz being played that night.
After that, I wanted to make jazz happen in my own life. I reached out to Jazz Workshop director Paul Pieper about whether one could join the Jazz Workshop playing uke. Paul answered that The Jazz Workshop is mostly structured around “bop”-style jazz which doesn’t quite mesh with uke:.
“Bop” is the sound of most every jazz group you hear today — even the jazz group sitting in the corner of the restaurant and playing polite, low-key jazz. They’re still playing according to the basic conventions of jazz performance as defined by the boppers in the late 40s.
I’m fairly familiar with the ukulele and what it can do. I’m also very familiar with “bop” style jazz and what it requires to make it sound right. I just can’t reconcile the two in my mind…
He dashed my hopes for uke but also mentioned that he had immediate openings for bass if I wanted to join as a bassist. And I decided that it was worth a try.
It’s been a year now and I’m still in the Workshop.
When I came to the Workshop, I hoped to get answers to the following questions:
— Okay, you have this chord chart… how do you make that into a song?
— Where does one begin with playing Jazz and how do you grow as a jazz player?
— How do you wrap your head around the harmonic structure of a tune and transitions between multiple key centers?
— How do you take a solo?
— How do you support someone taking a solo and make them sound better?
I joined as a bassist. Coming in as a beginner, I had only ever taken about a half-dozen solos in my life. On my first day, I think I doubled that number. They weren’t brilliant solos, but they were a start.
I also hadn’t really firmed up ideas on how to “walk” the bass lines or play in a “two feel”… fancy terms for quarter-note or half-note based lines. But I left the first day with “Real Book” lead sheets for a set of about 8 tunes and I set to practicing them everyday… and that’s a large part of what the Jazz Workshop helps me to do.
At home, I train my ear by listening to recordings and by practicing with the “iRealPro” app… and then each week at the Workshop, I get to find out how to deal with the realities of getting distracted, of losing your place, of hearing something a bit different than expected and trying to figure out how to react. It’s a safe space to experiment and ask questions.
As a result of being in the Workshop, I find myself part of a community of like-minded jazz musicians. This community aspect keeps me going… keeps me growing. I try to attend the Workshop’s monthly jam session at the Epicure Cafe in Fairfax each month, too.
I think the Workshop community consists mostly of people like me, who are not professional musicians. But there’s a lot of talent and dedication in this community.
Everyone is on a journey to become a better musician and that unites us in cause.
The biggest change for me is I no longer feel the dire need to “have a band” to keep growing as a musician. Playing over standards is very satisfying. I get a lot of time playing with different people and, while I’m open to different kinds of musical experiences, I’m in a space right now where I’m gaining a lot just getting together with people and playing.
My long term musical goal is to be as comfortable with music as I am with speaking. I don’t just want to be able to talk about simple things, I want to be able to be as emotionally rich or as abstract as I can get in English.
I also want to be able to speak in music in a back-and-forth with others in conversation.
Shorter term, my goals are to:
— Be a solid jazz bassist with a strong time feel, and to always be able to meet the demands of the music I’m playing
— To be able to be spontaneous and react to each musical situation
— Develop my understanding of jazz language and vocabulary
— Be able to sing and play bass for all of the songs on the Jazz Workshop Top 180 list (without needing to look at a chart)
Apart from the list of songs that I am working from, The Jazz workshop provides me with a regular routine, and the chance to play with musicians at my level. This is where I find out the many hidden details on how to approach certain standard tunes (things that aren’t written on the charts) and to ask questions that wouldn’t be appropriate at a jam session. It’s also a place I get to play ballads, which are seldom called at jazz jam sessions.
I think the most important thing I’ve done in the last year is to not try to take on too much. I make more progress when I am tightly focused on a small set of songs for about a month — about 8–10 tunes. Make sure the food groups are represented: Medium Swing, Blues, Bossa, Rhythm changes, A “Top 10” Famous Tune, Bop, Modal.
Then… I listen to different versions of the tune. A Spotify / Apple Music /Amazon Prime music playlist is your friend. Sing along with the melody whenever it’s playing… try to be aware of whenever the top of the form comes around… and the “B” section of the tune. Feel the changes in color when the key centers shift.
It’s important to be able to write the charts out from memory. Do this while you’re eating or taking a coffee break. Mentally walk through one of the tunes you’re working through and at least write down the root of each chord. If you can add chord qualities, great!
Finally, I attend jam sessions… as many as I can. When I’m not on stage I listen and I practice following the form, noting when the top of the form comes around and when the colors change. I clap and cheer.
I take responsibility to form my own network of musicians so that I can jam even more. I could just stay home and play with iRealPro but my ultimate goal is to be able to play with other musicians on stage.