Vince Giordano: Yesterday Man

Bandleader Vince Giordano brings a bygone era back to swinging life

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Musicians, including Vince Giordano, in scene from Boardwalk Empire

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Dancers are swaying and sashaying in elegant ballroom fashion as Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks beat out another hot-jazz gem. Debonair in his vintage tux, Giordano is stationed behind his low-end arsenal of tuba, bass saxophone and distinctive aluminum upright bass. He flashes an Elmer Gantry grin as he counts off the next tune, and his 11-piece ensemble launches into Bill Challis’ daunting arrangement of “’Tain’t So, Honey, ’Taint So,” a buoyantly swinging confection sung by a young Bing Crosby during his days with the Rhythm Boys in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Giordano leans over to sing the jaunty refrain into a vintage RCA microphone before tackling the ascending bassline on tuba. One couple executes an extravagant dip on the dance floor, and the bodies whirl as the band plays on.

This scene repeats every Monday and Tuesday evening at Club Cache, beneath Sofia’s restaurant in the basement of the Edison Hotel located in Manhattan’s Theatre District. It’s been Giordano’s haven for the past three years, a place to pursue his lifelong passion for this music from a bygone era. For three sets a night, the Nighthawks authentically recreate music by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Raymond Scott, Benny Moten, Jean Goldkette, Duke Ellington and others, for both connoisseurs and newcomers—say, those who were exposed to Giordano’s work via A Prairie Home Companion or HBO’s Mildred Pierce and Boardwalk Empire. (He even appeared on the latter series.) The ever-resourceful bandleader, who brings a book of 3,000 tunes with him to every gig, carries along a portable copy machine in case he needs to run off an extra chart of “Snake Rag,” “Sugar Foot Stomp” or “Zulu Wail” between sets.

While time marches on and jazz evolves, Giordano remains strictly focused on repertory from the jazz age. As he puts it, “It’s like being a French chef: He cooks French food. An Italian chef cooks Italian food. Vince Giordano? He cooks up old music from the ’20s and ’30s.”

Upon entering Giordano’s home in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, located just a stone’s throw away from the old Vitagraph Studios building, that same sense of stepping into the past is apparent. Autographed photos of Bing Crosby, Don Redman and Red Nichols hang on a wall next to a drumhead signed by Gene Krupa, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb and other drumming legends. Propped up in one corner is a straight baritone sax that once belonged to Benny Meroff, who played alongside Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer in the Whiteman Orchestra of the late ’20s.

In the living room is a player piano that once upon a time sat in a bar somewhere in the Bronx. Across the room are well-organized stacks of 2,000 meticulously labeled piano rolls of Tin Pan Alley tunes. Rows of filing cabinets that take up an entire wall of his basement store 65,000 pieces of music, all systematically cataloged and neatly filed away. In his bedroom there are stacks of obscure 78s and Edison discs near his grandmother’s old, wooden, hand-cranked Victrola. “That’s my Rosebud,” Giordano says with a gleam in his eye, alluding to Charles Foster Kane’s most prized possession in Citizen Kane. “On my deathbed, I’ll whisper, ‘Victrola.’”

Since first hearing jazz on the ancient machine as a 5-year-old, Giordano’s passion for the music has persisted. “Growing up in the ’50s, it was kind of embarrassing listening to pop radio—‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,’ ‘Oh My Papa’ and shlocky stuff like that. But I’d wind up my grandmother’s Victrola and listen to these old jazz records, and these guys were playing with so much energy and syncopation and just a grab-yer-ass kind of beat that I instantly loved it and thought, ‘This is my music!’ No one forced it on me. I just found it and ran with it.” A second epiphany came at 14, when he realized, “I want to play this old scratchy music today, in my lifetime, in high fidelity.” At 59, that’s still Giordano’s mantra.

After a stint in the Navy Show Band, Giordano formed the Nighthawks and in 1977 began a three-year residency at the New York club Red Blazer Too. The outfit included trumpeter Warren Vaché and a group of old big-band veterans, including players from the Glenn Miller bands, Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Casa Loma Orchestra. “These were older guys, but they still had it,” Giordano says. “Because of age discrimination, nobody hired them anymore—but I learned a lot from those guys.”

A recommendation from Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun led to a year-long engagement for the Nighthawks at the Carlyle Hotel. Giordano was later recruited by pianist Dick Hyman to play on two Woody Allen film scores, 1983’s Zelig and 1985’s Purple Rose of Cairo. He made a screen appearance in the 1999 Allen film Sweet and Lowdown, as the bassist in the Django-styled band led by fictional guitar legend Emmet Ray (Sean Penn).

In addition to the HBO work, Giordano’s Nighthawks provided music for Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film about Howard Hughes, The Aviator, contributing five tunes to the soundtrack, including Jelly Roll Morton’s “Milenberg Joys” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” In early May, Giordano doubled on tuba and string bass with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in a performance at Rose Theater to promote Ken Burns’ upcoming three-part documentary Prohibition and the Jazz Age (airing in October on PBS).

He welcomes all the sudden exposure of vintage jazz. “It wasn’t always like this,” he admits. “But now it’s almost like we’re having a renaissance where it’s OK to like and play this music. So it’s a good time for this band.”

Originally published in July/August 2011

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