They say that a great piece of music performed with heart, feeling and precision can not only transcend time, but space. And perhaps no artist currently working best exemplifies that credo that Vince Giordano.
On a warm New York City spring evening, just off Times Square in Manhattan’s Theatre District, Vince Giordano led his band The Nighthawks through another spirited performance during their residency at Club Iguana. The audience was young, but the music that kept toes tapping and the dance floor humming was stuff now approaching 100 years old, the days when Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb and a young Duke Ellington ruled the music world before a young upstart named Benny Goodman became the Elvis Presley of his day and ushered in the Swing Era of music.
Selecting from a mind-boggling 50,000-song catalogue of arrangements Giordano keeps stored on charts and in his head, he led his band through such time-honored songs as Bix Beiderbecke’s “From Monday On,” and Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” with Giordano leading the charge on tuba and upright bass. One could feel the years seemingly melt away as 11-piece Nighthawks made music that goes virtually unheard in 2015 seem as fresh and vital as any current chart-topper.
That very same evening, some 4,000 miles away, Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks were creating a noise of another kind with the premiere of celebrated director Todd Haynes’ new film “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett, making its bow at the Cannes Film Festival in France. In the film, The Nighthawks provide the era-appropriate music that helps drive the film, performing “These Foolish Things” and “Look For The Silver Lining.”
And if that wasn’t enough for Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks, folks could turn on their TV that very same night and hear the band rip through “Hot Time In The Old Town,” on the HBO film Bessie,” a telling of the amazing life of blues legend Bessie Smith.
It doesn’t hurt to be virtually the only game in town when it comes to the classic, pre-Big Band musical era – Vince Gioradano & the Nighthawks have not only played, but appeared onscreen in such movie classics as The Cotton Club, the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese film The Aviator and the Sam Mendes-directed powerhouse Revolutionary Road.
With his encyclopedic knowledge of the bygone musical era, Vince and his band not only provided the soundtrack to the critically acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire, but also served as the historical resource for the music, in which the band also appears on camera.
Speaking to Highlight Hollywood, Giordano is pleased while staying humble about being the go-to guy when it comes to the pre-Big Band music Hollywood features in film and TV.
“It’s very honorable to be asked to be a part of these projects, music of this classic era,” Giordano says. “In many ways, it feels like this is what I was put on earth to do.”
It’s certainly a labor of love for Giordano, who got bitten by the music bug at an early age. But it wasn’t the sounds of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry that hit his sweet spot – it was cranking up his grandmother’s old windup Victrola at her home in Brooklyn. N.Y.
“They had many parties, and folks brought phonograph records over to listen and dance to,” Giordano recalled. “Many of them were left behind over the years, and when I discovered the collection in the 1950s there were thousands of records, from classical, big band and novelty records, but I found a Louis Armstrong record and a King Oliver record, too.
“What won me over with this music was the unique parts of it that I was not hearing in the current pop music of the 1950s – there was a lot of emotion, fun and music that seemed to move me.”
Living in Long Island, N.Y., in his youth, Giordano finally pursued picking up an instrument himself in junior high. But the school band was filled with clarinet, trumpet and trombone players – the bandleader told Vince, “We really need a tuba player.”
Giordano went along with the idea, but a strange and wonderful thing happened when he combined his new instrument with the records he grew up loving at grandmother’s house. “I was playing an old 78 rpm jazz record and I decided to try and play along with the record,” he says.
“I really didn’t know much about keys and chord changes, but I could feel the rhythm, and I synced up with the band on the record, hitting many wrong notes, but still have the fun of playing this early jazz music.”
From there, it was a case of no turning back for Giordano- the music chose him. He studied under the renowned musical arranger Bill Challis, meeting many of his aging jazz heroes as a result. He joined the U.S. Navy band after high school, touring South America and parts of the U.S. as part of the Navy’s big band, and, returning to New York, joined his first jazz repertoire band.
He eventually formed The Nighthawks in 1976 with collaborator Rich Conatay, and a strange, beautiful problems arose: the pair had trouble finding young people familiar with and the ability to interpret the very specific jazz age they wanted to perform.
“We ended up calling many veterans of the Big Band era who weren’t busy and were happy to be called into a working band,” Giordano tells Highlight Hollywood. Thus, Giordano found himself in the blissful situation of leading players from the Artie Shaw Band, Benny Goodman Band and Tommy Dorsey band through the paces.
Then came the movie business, which truthfully, became more of a love than a business to Vince. While working under the baton of Dick Hymen, Giordano played in his orchestra, working on the music for a string of Woody Allen films, from Sweet and Lowdown to the Purple Rose of Cairo. Vince and his band made their film bow in 1984’s The Cotton Club, and meanwhile, they were making waves on the New York City music scene.
As his reputation grew, so did the film offers – noted film music supervisor Randall Poster called Giordano in to work on Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator, and when Poster was hired to provide the sounds for Boardwalk Empire, the partnership was solidified – and Giordano now has a Grammy Award on his mantle for the soundtrack for the show’s first season.
“I often say that I am lucky to have all this movie work living in New York,” Giordano says. “You would think you would have to be in L.A. to do this; thank goodness these productions were done in NYC.”
But don’t think for a minute playing music largely unfamiliar to the ears of today’s audiences is an easy road to travel – as stated, it is truly a labor of love for Giordano, with the emphasis on labor.
While Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks play some swing music as part of their repertoire, it’s that pre-Swing era that is at the band’s heart. The bands then were smaller, the rhythm section consisting of tuba and banjo and the music largely in 2/4 time. The bands got bigger in the 1930s, people were dancing to 4/4 time, the banjo and tuba made way for the guitar and string bass.
Swing music became an unexpected craze among rock fans in the 1990s, with the likes of the Royal Crown Revue, Big VooDoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers leading the charge. And of course, fans wanted to hear The Nighthawks perform their favorites from those bands.
“We just never lost focus of our repertoire,” Giordano tells Highlight Hollywood. “What I was going for was trying to get closer to the music that I heard on the vintage phonograph records at my grandmother’s.”
And it’s been a mixed blessing in trying to keep the music of that era alive.
“Working on the films and the big concerts has been financially very good, but the music I love is not really music that everyone knows about or wants to come and hear,” Giordano said with candor. “Hopefully this will change.”
“There have been so many frustrations in being a band leader, you have so many different parts of the organization that demand so much attention. Then there’s the issues of musicians, especially in the early days, retiring or moving away. Not only were these great friends of mine, but they were terrific instrumentalists who understood the language of playing this style of music.
“They are missed.”
Still, at 63, Giordano has no plans to slow down. At his residency at Club Iguana, he works the room like a politician, shaking hands, chatting with club-goers. It’s his way of keeping the music alive at a time when it’s far from easy.
“People just have hundreds and hundreds of entertainment options these days,” Giordano says. “It’s not like when folks would go out during the heyday of this music, and seeing a band was the highlight of their week, if not their month or year.
“It seems like you now have to reach 10,000 people to find enough to fill a room.”
Still, the music itself remains the motivator for Giordano, and it doesn’t go unnoticed, certainly not among Hollywood-types, but even more, music fans who care about the whole breadth of the American songbook.
“In my mind, Vince deserves a President Medal of Honor at the Kennedy Center for what he does,” noted musicologist Christian Donahue tells Highlight Hollywood. “He’s virtually the only man leading a band, playing these wonderful songs that were otherwise be lost to history, and play them with all the vigor and musicianship they deserve.
“When Vince is gone, I’m afraid there’s no one else who is going to pick up the mantle, and that’s all of our loss.”