..."There was everything there in the attic from grand opera to great jazz by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, mixed in with novelty music and typical band music from the '20s and '30s. I ... have been into this music 55 years now. So, I'm in it for the long stretch," Giordano says by phone from New York City where his revivalist band, The Nighthawks, has been the toast of the town for several decades.
"Winding up the old gramophone in the attic and hearing this great syncopation and these people moaning and groaning to the music. Well, it just brought me to a new place. The music was a reflection of the times and the times were a reflection of the music. I could see how those people were so joyous and carefree, maybe a little silly, but those were the times. And people were so excited about everything. They were so positive about every little thing that came out, especially invention-wise, just like today," he says.
Giordano, who performs with his old-time yet timeless band Friday at 9:30 p.m. at the opening of the 17th annual Litchfield Jazz Festival in Goshen, is a most happy workaholic bandleader, performer and intense scholar of the forever effervescent, romantic, sometimes naughty and sexy, sometimes witty and sophisticated or just plain light-hearted and hedonistic period music. It's what kept America dancing in the Jazz Age through the Great Depression into the Swing Era before jazz became cerebral, academically studied and no longer the mass popular music for dancers.
Not only does Giordano lead and manage his successful band (he's never even had a manager), but the multi-instrumentalist also triples on string bass, tuba and the odd looking, richly deep-voiced hunk of twisted, sculpted brass called a bass saxophone.
His mix of work ethic, talent and seemingly insatiable passion for early jazz and pop has brought him great success in film and television, including a recent Grammy award for his vibrant vintage music on the HBO hit series,"Boardwalk Empire."
His high-flying Nighthawks, which the Long Island native founded in 1976, have been the ultimate chic and swingingly sleek band to hire at such elite events as black-tie galas at the New York Public Library, the Waldorf Astoria and the Rainbow Room.
With its ancient but spirited sound that the New York Times has described as "an erupting well-spring of euphoria," Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have brought their sizzling mix of cosmopolitan polish and revivalist fervor to such venerable venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Smithsonian and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
With their celebrations of classic American jazz and pop ranging from Louis Armstrong to Paul Whiteman, Vince and the boys in the band have entertained at upscale private events for the patrons of the New York Pops, the New York City Opera, New York City Ballet and anywhere the elite meet to party and dance.
If the busy touring band has a regular stomping ground it is Sofia's Restaurant, a Manhattan nightspot located downstairs at the Edison Hotel. On Monday and Tuesday nights, in what has become a Big Apple ritual, both plutocrats and populists gather at Sofia's to savor the artful charts of yesteryear as they were originally played back when gramophones were as new and as much the in-thing as iPods and YouTube are today.
The Nighthawks play three sets for diners and dancers who strut their period steps on a big wooden dance floor. Typically, whether at Sofia's or at nightclubs and festivals worldwide, the band's crisp, celebratory, high-caliber musicianship draws demographics that range from appreciative young listeners, who have probably never before heard such antediluvian songs and syncopations, to happy nonagenarians, who may have danced and romanced to those timeless tunes back in the day of their flaming youth.
In his premiere appearance at the Litchfield Jazz Festival, Giordano shares the bill with the latest incarnation of The Four Freshman whose cool, close harmonies made them a top vocal group of the 1950s. Their "progressive style," as it was called back then, has endured and still ranks high in readers' polls in jazz publications. The Freshmen flaunt their '50s cool at 7:30 p.m.
Giordano, who has a jazz musician's sense of humor, recently shared his thoughts with The Courant, ranging over everything from why songs from long bygone days still connect with 21st century listeners to how he became the collector of a massive, museum-like archive of rare, irreplaceable musical antiquities.
Q: Besides immersion in the music of the period, are you into the whole cultural thing about America in the 1920s and '30s?
A: Well, a little bit. I watch the films from the period, and the literature, not too much. I'm just a music fella. I don't get into heavy things, except lifting my tuba or my string bass. That's the heaviest I get.
Q: Well, you're probably consumed by the music, running the band, building your mammoth collection of vintage scores, etc., and other projects from film to TV.
A: Believe me with amassing my collection and working on scores and doing film soundtracks, I really don't have too much time for anything else. This is my passion, my love, my hobby, and the way I make my living too, all rolled into one. So I'm totally consumed, body and soul.
Q: Does it ever get to feel like too much effort, as when the economy bottoms out and venues inevitably close or cutback as they did in the '90s and today as well?
A: No, it's not work for me. It's sort of like eating ice cream. This is where I want to be. This is my own time machine. People used to say to me, 'What are you doing with this old music? You'll never do anything with this.' They'd tell me, 'You'll never be able to go back in time.'
But this is my calling. This is my religion.
Q: You guys won a Grammy for the show's music, but will you and the Nighthawks be back for the new season when 'Boardwalk Empire' returns on HBO?
A: Yes, we've already been doing some recordings. Liza Minnelli came in and did a terrific job with a Sophie Tucker tune. She really did Sophie to a T, with the whole talk, her kind of double entendre thing.
Q: Did you know that Sophie Tucker, 'The Last of the Red Hot Mommas' and a queen-size super star of her day, was from Hartford?
A: Well, Sophie Tucker was great, a real entertainer ahead of her time. She could be so risqué, but in such a tongue-and-cheek way. That takes real art. And she had great timing too. The way she would hold notes and then come in. That's why she was famous and one of a kind. There were many imitators, but only one Sophie Tucker.
Q: Where does the name Nighthawks come from?
A: I heard about a once famous band called Coon-Sanders and the Nighthawks that was on the air during the early days of radio, radio pioneers broadcasting at 11 p.m. or midnight from the Midwest and heard throughout the United States. An irate farmer once called up on the phone to tell them there was nobody listening to their late night broadcasts but 'a bunch of nighthawks,' thus the Nighthawks name. I kind of like the idea of playing hot music and keeping people up late
Q: You grew up in the '50s, yet you were hooked on vintage music, which was already decades out of date. Why was that?
A: The period music had something that really just captured my whole interest, in comparison to what was going on in the 1950s, whose pop music was 'How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?' or 'O, Mein Papa.' Nothing against those performers or those songwriters, who I'm sure made a lot of money, but it was kind of saccharine music. I'd get the fidgets listening to that stuff when we'd be driving around in the car on Long Island with the AM radio on.
Q: How did you wind up playing the instruments you play, particularly the bass saxophone, which you hardly ever see or hear anymore anywhere?
A: I started out as a violinist, but had a terrible experience with a terrible teacher who made us all cry, which in the third grade, was easy to do. I think she expected Jascha Heifetz in just two months of lessons. I left after a year, and so did the other kids. I didn't do anything with playing music until four years later in seventh grade.
I was a big guy, 6-foot-1, and was pretty hefty back then. So I'd go with the band teacher down to the band room and look into a closet where there's a bunch of tubas. He pulls one out, cleans off the mouthpiece and says, 'Here. Try it.' I blow into it and make this horrendous noise, and he says, 'You sound great!'
Anyway, I take the tuba home and much to my chagrin kids immediately give me the nickname, Tubby the Tuba. Or they'd say, 'There goes Vince making that cartoon music or Little Rascals music again.' It was hard defending this stuff. I got a thick skin from all those years.
Q: What about the string bass?
A: Another teacher was desperately seeking anyone who could play string bass, and knew I was into old music. He told me that back in the old days tuba players doubled on string bass and vice versa. So I got into that mode. At the same time, I was collecting records and working at an antique shop, not for money but for the junk that was in there, sheet music, records, instruments and things like that.
Q: And what about you and the bass sax?
A: One day I heard this recording with a strange sounding instrument like a metal bassoon. I brought the record to my high school to the band director and played it for him. He told me it was a bass saxophone, and, as it turned out, it was the great Adrian Rollini, the only jazz bass saxophonist during the 1920s and early 1930s, playing with the California Ramblers.
Q: How did you ever find one back in those pre-Internet days?
A: It was like seeking hen's teeth. I drove my parents crazy having them drive me all over Long Island checking out calls from little old ladies who'd say they had a bass saxophone for me. I'd get there, but it would be a tenor not a bass saxophone. I'd say, 'This is a tenor. It's not big enough.' 'Well, it looks big to me,' they'd say.
I finally found an old one which wasn't very good, but the bass sax became part of my arsenal because it's another tonal color. I'm trying to make it different for all of us in the band and for the audience as well.
Q: Besides bass sax, do you have other odd instruments in the band?
A: We have a lot of weird instruments in the band like a phono-fiddle, which is a violin with a horn on it. I've resurrected the Hal Kemp (an early band leader) idea of clarinet megaphones. I've also resurrected the trombone megaphone, which is a megaphone that the trombonist plays into and gets this eerie sound. I'll be bringing all that junk with me to Litchfield, and a small keyboard called the celeste — you've heard it in Tchaikovsky — which they also used in the early bands. We've got orchestral bells and, of course, the guys in the band have fun with mutes and soprano saxophones.
Q: What about your role as a collector and archivist of musical material from the period, including, rather astoundingly, 60,000 scores?
A: I started collecting old records when I was a kid, as I said, and began hitting antique shops hunting for period objects like records and sheet music. I'd stumble on band parts that are even rarer than sheet music, and started asking older musicians about things like that and where to find them.
People were just throwing it out like it was yesterday's newspaper. I started putting in ads in the local musicians' union paper and one in the International Musicians' publication, which went to every musician in the union in all 50 states. I was bombarded with responses from people who had cellars and attics and basements full of old music, fellas in their 70s, 80s and 90s who had no more use for the stuff. They had given up the ship, and the boxes of stuff started to arrive.
I was on the road with different bands then and would check with local unions and ask who was still around from the old days and what they might have in storage.
I kept getting so much stuff that nobody would room with me on the road. They said it was like rooming with Sanford and Son. All this old music and all that old paper sometimes starts to smell old. So I would box it up and send it back to my home. And when I got home, I had this igloo of music waiting for me in the room.
Q: Along with scores and sheet music, what were some of these other precious relics you rounded up?
A: I picked up a lot of silent movie accompaniment, which we've used in some of our silent film work. I've cleaned out four old theaters, including one up in Buffalo. I flew to St. Louis to clean out the old Ambassador Theater, which was a great theater, and got Jack Haley's vaudeville music there. (A vaudeville alumnus who moved on to Hollywood, Haley was most famous for his portrayal of the Tin Man in MGM's "The Wizard of Oz."). I salvaged what I could. The rest of the building was imploded, so all the rest of the music was lost.
I cleaned out two theaters in New Jersey where someone must have been lazy because they hadn't thrown out music from the late '20s and early '30s, which wasn't needed anymore since talking pictures were coming in and vaudeville was gone.
Q: What do you do with all that enormous amount of material?
A: I had to buy the house next door to me, after the elderly people there passed away, to house the collection. By then I had accumulated about 31,000 pieces of piano sheet music, 3,000 or 4,000 piano rolls, a player piano, vintage instruments, some of which are one of a kind, including a rare, straight, elongated baritone sax that's so long that you have to stand on a stool in order to play it.
Q: What are some of the other great finds?
A: I got some Harold Arlen (a great American songwriter) manuscripts from a bandleader when I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. They were going to throw it out in the dumpster, but I told them, 'Here's $300 bucks. I'll take it all.'
Q: It sounds like you own a private museum. Who's the curator?
A: I'm the curator. Each piece of music or orchestration has its own individual folder and catalog number, and it is all stored in more than 100 filing cabinets.
Q: What is it about the old music that people love so much today, including kids for whom it's so old it's new?
A: I think if this music is played correctly, it will grab people. It puts them in a happier mood, a far better mood. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me over the years after we've played and said, 'I came down here tonight and I was feeling terrible. This bad thing or that bad thing happened to me today, but this was better than going to a psychiatrist. Thanks to the music, I'm leaving here with a good feeling.
Of course, a good meal and couple drinks can't hurt either.
Photo by Tony Mottola, New Jersey Jazz Society.
READ THE ARTICLE ONLINE AT COURANT.COM.