Escape into a vintage world with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks
by Debbie Burke
If the highest compliment to a musician is to say that his or her band transports the listener, then bandleader Vince Giordano is a travel agency extraordinaire unto himself, providing a one-way ticket to a fascinating time and place. His vintage-style 1920s/30s music instantly brings the audience to a raucous, uninhibited party where enjoyment reigns supreme. Only a mannequin would fail to get up and dance.
With high-profile TV and movie music among their credits, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks sustain the energy to entertain seemingly without end. Their tight, swinging sound is hard to miss, impossible to ignore. Sample these: the iconic and sassy “Minnie the Moocher”; “The Sugarfoot Stomp” from Boardwalk Empire; and the “Café Society” song “(I’ll Take) Manhattan”.
What do you consider your introduction to jazz? My introduction to jazz was when I was five years old listening to old phonograph records that my grandmother accumulated in the 1920s and ’30s. Not all the records in her collection were jazz, but there was a Louis Armstrong record on Okeh: “Blue Again,” King Oliver Brunswick’s “Every Tub,” an Ethel Waters disc on Columbia with “Shake That Thing” and other popular dance band records of the 1920’s where various jazz solos were played.
What do you like so much about this music? The word spirit is a very important word because growing up in the early 1950s, the only other music I heard was the pop AM radio station my parents played. This music was very commercial and predictable and it lacked the drive that I found in instrumentalists and vocalists of the 1920s.
There was also a unique quality and interpretation these pioneer jazz musicians and singers gave to their music—for me, it was almost like listening to a lost language! To play this music today, I encourage my musicians to listen to the original recordings. They will hear the intensity of the performers, use of vibrato on certain notes, growling notes, an “on top of the beat” feel, that “nervous energy” and more. This all was part of the jazz language of those days and needed for a performance today.
Why do you think audiences love it? Audiences can be quite opinionated about many forms of jazz from ragtime to no time (free time). The folks who like what we do have heard some of the original classic recordings from the early jazz years and enjoy our versions. Then there are folks who have never heard the music we play and become fans.
The early jazz music we play has an energy and joy to it. Many folks who’ve come to see us say they were feeling just so-so at the start of the night and after an evening with us, they had their mood elevated. Better than a psychiatrist!
What instruments do you play? These days I concentrate on the string bass, tuba and bass sax, but I’ve done some recording, film work and gigs playing banjo/guitar, piano and drums, too.
Do you remember your first arrangement? Yes, it was an attempt of a transcription of a Frank Trumbauer record (with Bix Beiderbecke) of a Fields and McHugh tune called “Futuristic Rhythm.” That was back in my 20s. I’ve gotten a bit better since then!
How have your arrangements evolved through the years? Ever since I started working on period films, I have been doing transcriptions of popular and jazz recordings from the past. In my early years, I wrote all the music with pen and paper. Now, I use a music program on my computer called Sibelius. This allows me to hear the score I’ve worked on at home and make my corrections (or share the score with my musicians via email and they make corrections).
With all that, we still try out the arrangement at the first rundown of a recording session and make more refinements, trying to get it as close as we can to the original record. It’s a wonderful process. Everyone in the band hears something unique on the original recording and I get some ear training lessons from my band, too!
What did it feel like to win your first Grammy? I was driving home in New York from a gig and our recording engineer for Boardwalk Empire, Stewart Lerman, called my cell phone. It was a great surprise and very uplifting. Yes, good to get the recognition but the win for me was the fact that more people, and particularly young people, would find out about this genre of early jazz music.
How did you break into TV and film work? I was lucky to meet composer/jazz pianist Dick Hyman at a record store and told him how much I enjoyed his work and very boldly told him if he ever needed someone to play tuba, bass or bass sax, I would audition for him. He just so happened to be getting ready to score and conduct a Woody Allen soundtrack for a film set in the 1920s called “Zelig” and I wound up bringing all three instruments to the studio!
Woody was doing more period films with Dick Hyman like “Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Everyone Says I Love You” and others, and I was lucky that Dick used me on those films as well. I was a young fellow in those years and had a steady gig with my big band The Nighthawks at the Red Blazer Too in NYC and started to get known as the young musician who honors the jazz age with his band.
A few years later, jazz reed man and composer Bob Wilber was scoring and playing on the film “Cotton Club” and needed a small white band for a scene with Richard Gere and Diane Lane. He came to see us and we got the part. We were also asked to do a 1920s film with Madonna playing early Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway music called “Bloodhounds of Broadway” and that led to “Ghost World” where we recreated the music of King Oliver, Tiny Parham and Hoagy Carmichael, and first worked with Steve Buscemi.
Another important break for us was to record two tunes and appear in a very successful film directed by Gus Van Sant called “Finding Forrester.” It was a big hit and many folks saw us in it! Soon after that film, music supervisor Randall Poster hired us for “The Aviator,” “Revolutionary Road” and then five seasons of “Boardwalk Empire.” I could go on and on—but it would be easier to check my website! All the films I worked on except “Aviator” were done in NYC. That was great!
When writing soundtracks, how does TV differ from film? For me, they’re the same to work on.
What silent films did you write for at MoMA [Museum of Modern Art in NYC]? I’ve done a handful of silent films: “The Cameraman” [Buster Keaton] performed at the Ziegfeld Theatre, Egyptian Theatre in LA [for TCM] and Town Hall NYC; and some Harold Lloyd films, “Get Out and Get Under” and “High and Dizzy,” that we originally did for AMC and later performed at the East Hampton Film Festival and Disneyland.
In 2017 we did some Hal Roach short films at MoMA including “Mighty Like a Moose,” “Putting Pants on Philip,” “Should Men Walk Home?” and “The Battle of the Century.” Later in the year we did a Lois Weber feature called “The Sensation Seekers.”
Here’s a story about silent picture music and jazz man Louis Armstrong: Back in the early 1930’s Armstrong recorded a funny record called “Laughin’ Louie.” The tune was re-issued on an RCA record in the 1960s by producer George Avakian.
When Louis was interviewed by George Avakian, he asked him, “On ‘Laughin’ Louis,’ what is the solo melody are you playing on the last part of the record ?” Louis couldn’t remember. He said, “I think it must have been something I learned as a kid.” So Avakian writes in his LP notes, “If anybody knows what this theme is, please contact me at RCA/Victor.” Thirty years later I was doing a silent picture movie synchronization for a film at the Film Forum called “Lucky Star.” I hired a pianist and we’re going through all these old silent film cues, and my pianist started playing a
silent stock theme called “Love Song” from 1920 and I fell off my chair. “We found the mystery theme of ‘Laughin’ Louie!’” I called Avakian and said, “George—listen to this—we found the mystery song from ‘Laughin’ Louie!’” It was a stock movie theme from 1920 by Minnie T. Wright (which is probably a pseudonym). Louis was playing for silent films in the ’20s. In 1925 when he was with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra in Chicago, this was a piece of music that I’m sure he played over and over again and it stuck with him.
Talk briefly about the personnel in The Nighthawks? Andy Stein, violin/baritone sax; Mike Ponella, trumpet; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Evan Arntzen, alto sax/clarinet; Mark Lopeman, tenor sax/clarinet; Dan Levinson, alto sax/clarinet; Peter Yarin, piano; Justin Poindexter, guitar/banjo; Paul Wells, percussion; Vince Giordano, band leader, vocalist, string bass/bass sax/tuba.
I’m VERY lucky to have these musicians on the bandstand with me. They all are versatile jazz musicians who are very capable of playing in many different styles but are aware of what my band is about, and read the arrangements or improvise with the proper respect for the repertory.
Favorite venues in NYC? We play at Iguana every Monday and Tuesday night, so I like that place! There’s also Birdland, Dizzy’s Coca Cola and the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Favorite international concert ever? I’ve never taken my band to a jazz concert or series outside of the US. We’ve played at the Newport International Jazz Festival a couple of times, which was great. We’ve played a couple of commercial gigs outside the US…but there wasn’t much jazz involved.
How does one sustain the joy, energy and intensity of performing this genre? I try to vary the music when we perform: tempos, mood and also give a bit of history about the bandleader, composer and musicians, and have some fun with the folks and get the audience involved too.
You collect scores and now have about 60,000. Why? I started collecting (and rescuing) band music in the 1970s. I realized that some older musicians still had their old band libraries and having a collection of music would be helpful for my upcoming gigs. It would be easier than starting from scratch and writing out all the music myself.
I started putting ads in The International Musician and the Musicians’ Union paper in NYC saying I was looking for old dance band arrangements. I got this letter from a fellow who made Gennett recordings in the 1920s, Marion McKay. Many band charts I got from him were arrangements done by Hoagy Carmichael. There was also the music collection of the Ambassador Theatre in St. Louis that had over 900 boxes of music (jazz charts, pop charts and silent music cues). That was a lot of work to go through!
So much of this music has been thrown out over the years and the publishers who own the rights to this music don’t have copies of their band arrangements anymore. For me it’s fun to save this music and explore arrangements by playing some obscure tunes now and then. I hope there will be a place for my collection when I go to that “big band in the sky.”
Is there anything new in vintage jazz? I’ve heard vintage tracks messed up with rock beats and rap “technology.” It’s not my cup of tea. I like it the way it was/is.
I’ve also heard “new” vintage jazz or pop music trying to sound like teens/1920s/1930s and to me it often sounds insincere.
Upcoming tours? No tours for the band. The documentary that was done on us, “Vince Giordano: There’s A Future In The Past,” will be touring Australia.
Did you enjoy working on the 2016 “There’s a Future in the Past” with Hudson West? Yes, it was a great honor to work with the film directors and producers Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson. They worked on PBS specials with Michael Feinstein, Jerry Herman, Peg Leg Bates and other films, and understood my struggle and did a fine job of telling my story.
I think the film gives the audience some glorious music and historical background. It shows how hard it is to keep this music alive.
What is the biggest myth about this era of music? One of the myths because of folks hearing it on beat-up or pre-electric 78rpm records is that the music is tinny and that’s the way it sounded like live. Another myth is only older folks listen to it these days. In reality, there are many young folks who are into it these days – more than ever!
What new projects are you working on? We might do some more music for the series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
Other comments? I hope parents, grandparents and other family members will take the kids to see and hear Broadway shows, cabaret, classical and jazz music. We have to introduce these young folks to all of this!
Vince Giordano on Twitter: