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Friday, April 03, 2015

Forward into the Past

SPEND AN EVENING AT THE IGUANA, on Manhattan’s West 54th Street, on a Monday or Tuesday night when Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks perform and you time-travel back to the 1920s and ’30s through the most effective of sensory manipulators: Music. They play it as if they were born to play it, and they probably were. It sounds hungry, driven. It’s the sound of a country celebrating unprecedented prosperity and a calamitous slide into ruin. While not being legally allowed to drink.

Vince Giordano and an octavin
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But the ’20s was one of the most significant decades in the country’s musical development, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among others, defining jazz. And the ’30s was when jazz learned to swing and arrangements grew even more harmonically complicated.

Giordano brings home the importance of this music – and it’s unbridled fun – with an eleven-piece band made up of New York’s finest jazz musicians in performances that present the original charts from those decades in a manner as alive as anything sporting this year’s copyright.

That’s Vince towards the back, surrounded by a fleet of bass-voice instruments: tuba, bass sax, string bass. And a microphone for the occasional vocal. I’m guessing that he knows the lyrics to a few thousand songs. If he seemed like a dinosaur when he was playing this music in the 1970s, he’s been vindicated by the popularity of his three soundtrack recordings from the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” in which he and the band appear – as they did in Martin Scorcese’s “The Aviator” and many other period-set movies.

His obsession with this music started in 1957, when he was five. “I was born in Brooklyn,” he explains, “and raised in Smithtown on Long Island. But we’d come back to Brooklyn to visit my grandparents. They had this phonograph, a Victrola – I have it here in my house, it’s sort of my Rosebud. My grandparents loved music and had an amazing collection of records that ranged from grand opera to novelty music from the ’20s. They also had some jazz – my grandmother loved Louis Armstrong – and I’d go up there and listen to this stuff. And there was something about the energy and the vitality of it that hooked me.”

We’re speaking at Giordano’s home in Brooklyn, a small Stuart Little-like building that sits alongside its twin, which he also owns. His living room sports an array of musical instruments, record players, photographs, and a wall of piano rolls.

“I discovered this music at a time when what you’d hear on the radio was ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ Woof woof. Nothing against those songwriters or those singers, but it was kind of embarrassing. And here were these old jazz records, and, wow! This was something I could sink my teeth into. Also, when I’d come home from school back then, I could see the Little Rascals comedies on TV, and even though those films were made in the ’30s, they still had one foot in the Jazz Age, and used a soundtrack of syncopated music I also found appealing.”

Soon he made the leap from listening to playing. “I was in elementary school, looking to play the trumpet or clarinet, and the band director said, ‘We don’t have any of those left. But we really need is a tuba player.’ So he brings out this tuba, and it made this horrific sound – but he gave it to me to take home. And I was playing my old records, and suddenly I could hear the tuba, keeping the beat in those dance bands, so I thought, okay, let me try it – but even once I could get sounds out of it, I still didn’t have enough knowledge of keys and chord changes. But that was the day when I decided I was going to play the music of that time, and I started learning to play it.”

The Nighthawks | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
He expanded into the tuba’s bass-clef cousins in junior high school. “The guy who led the orchestra found out I really loved this ’20s music, and he needed a string bass player, so he came to me and said, ‘You know, back in the ’20s, the tuba guys used to have to double on the string bass.’ So I said, ‘All right,’ and he taught me to play it. Also around this time, I was working at an antiques shop in Smithtown, mostly hefting things for this old couple that ran the place. I didn’t work for money – I worked for the junk that was there, like records and sheet music. I picked up one record, and it’s got this crazy instrument on it that’s playing the bass line. I brought it into the school, and the music teacher told me it was a bass sax. A bass sax! So I had to get one of those.

“I went out looking, but usually it would be a tenor or a baritone sax that people had – they didn’t know any better. I finally found one, painted black, that had been in this guy’s attic for so long that the case was like George Washington’s underwear, crumbling all over the place. But it was a start. I took it to a music store and got it fixed, but it played a half-tone flat. I finally sold it to someone who wanted one to hang on the wall.”

Giordano indicates the bass sax sitting nearby, a shiny silver giant of a contraption. “This is the one I play now. If it sounds out of tune, it’s me, not the sax.” He revels in the unusual, and pops open a case to reveal a small woodwind instrument. “This is called an octavin,” he explains. “It’s kind of like a bassoon with a sopranino mouthpiece. I’ll try to make some noises on it.” He demonstrates with a pleasant-sounding lick. “It sounds sort of like a soprano sax. I believe it was devised in Germany. It’s very strange – it looks like a mixture of everything. It sort of reminds me of a platypus.”

Which makes it easy to pick out in a photograph that hangs nearby. “Here’s Ross Gorman, who played with Paul Whiteman. He’s the first guy who played that clarinet glissando at the beginning of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ – and he’s got an octavin right there. Also a bass oboe, a bass saxophone, he played xylophone, he played bagpipes – look at his face. Look at his eyes. He’s insane.”

A few of the arrangements on file ...
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Giordano is tireless in his collecting – he explains that 60 boxes of manuscript scores just arrived and need to be catalogued – and in his performing, which he has been doing for 40 years. It’s not merely a matter of keeping the music alive. That happens every time you listen to one of the original recordings, which you ought to be doing frequently. He gives a special energy to the experience of wrapping yourself in these tunes, best achieved live in a club like the Iguana.

The Nighthawks were born in 1976, the brainchild of broadcaster Rich Conaty. “He’d go to Williams College,” says Giordano, “and photocopy the arrangements in their Paul Whiteman collection. But these charts were written for about 24 players. Rich would call a rehearsal and four people would show up. And it’s not like everything is in the first sax or first trombone – the arrangers would throw things around, so they’d throw the solo to third trombone, or the fourth saxophone. We had no money, we had no gigs on the horizon – and it’s the ’70s and we’re playing ’20s music, asking ourselves why are we trying to do this?

“So I started collecting stock arrangements that were written for the smaller bands. Quite a few name bands messed with those arrangements, put introductions on them, added solos – some people pooh-pooh them, but they can sound great. And I was in the back of the group, playing the bass instruments, too shy to get up in front and say anything, when Rich got a call to do a radio show in Pittsburgh. So, through trial by fire, I started leading the band.”

Finding players familiar with the genre is a perennial challenge. Forty years ago, Vince could find people who’d actually played those charts back in the day. “I went through the union book to see which players were still around. Some of them had stopped playing and gotten rid of their instruments, some didn’t want to play that old stuff any more. But there were a few who were eager to play and weren’t getting hired. I found Bernie Priven, who’d played with Artie Shaw; Clarence Hutchenrider, who did wonderful clarinet work with the Casa Loma band; Jimmy Maxwell, from Benny Goodman’s orchestra, and Carmen Mastren, who played guitar with Tommy Dorsey and made some arrangements for him.

“I had four questions for each of the guys I found: Do you still play? Do you want to play? Do you have your instrument? Do you own a tux? Some guys, like Hutchenrider, remembered the arrangements and still had strong feelings about them. I remember him asking once, ‘You’re not gonna play that junky one from 1928 are you?’ So we didn’t.

“Over the years, the fellows got older and eventually passed on. But there were younger guys who’d come along and listen to the band and ask if they could get on the sub list, and we’ve been pretty lucky in the musicians we attract. Of course, for every musician you see sitting up there, there are ten at home who don’t want to play this kind of stuff.”

Given the limitations of time and budget, the performances are the rehearsals. The players are virtuoso sight readers, “and I send emails so they can listen to things, but what you see is what you get. Years and years ago, I made a tape loop of Benny Goodman solos – just the solos – and sent it to the band, and one guy, he was a regular guy in my band at the time, asked me, ‘What’s with this tape?’ ‘It’s Benny Goodman,’ I told him. ‘And you want us to play like this?’ ‘Well, yeah,’ I said. ‘It’s like a language you have to learn.’ And he quit over that. So, it’s 25 or so years later, and here he is doing a show on Broadway, he’s doing ‘Fosse,’ and he’s got to play the clarinet part on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ every night – so that was my revenge.”

To really dig what Giordano does, apart from seeing a live performance, is to listen to his CDs. He and the band won a Grammy for the first volume of music from “Boardwalk Empire,” and have since released two more. They were featured in the series in fairly brief glimpses, so the CDs offer a chance to stretch out with the music. And note that it’s all vintage stuff, songs like “Livery Stable Blues,” saluting the beginning of recorded jazz, “Japanese Sandman,” and “Sugarfoot Stomp,” with a procession of guest vocalists that include the folks who get it, like Loudon Wainwright III (Bing’s “When the Blue of the Night”) and his kids Rufus (“Jimbo Jambo”) and Martha (“All By Myself”); Leon Redbone (“Sheik of Araby”), Nellie McKay (“Wild Romantic Blues”), and Stephen DeRosa, who plays Eddie Cantor in the series and sings a number of Cantor specialties on the CDs.

It was Vince whom Bill Challis sought for “The Goldkette Project.” Recorded in 1986, it features arrangements written 60 years earlier by the young Challis for the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. He worked with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, and, when the Goldkette band folded in 1928, went with them to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. For his revisit to those charts on “The Goldkette Project,” the band includes an earlier Nighthawks iteration, augmented with Bob Wilbur and Dick Wellstood and, on trombone, surviving Goldkette bandmember Speigel Willcox.

Other Giordano recordings include “Cheek to Cheek,” covering the best songs from the Astaire-Rogers movies, “Cotton Club Revisited,” featuring the tunes played by Ellington and Calloway at the famous nightclub, and “Quality Shout,” which best captures the lineup of up-tempo numbers that make up much of a live-concert set.

A night at the Iguana consists of three sets, some elements planned, some off-the-cuff. “I’ve got four books there with me, with a couple thousand pieces,” says Vince. “For the first few numbers I try to do something up tempo, grab people’s attention, get them excited. Then it’s just a mixture of songs and tempos. Sometimes we have requests, we put in a couple of vocals.
And we’ll do a couple of Dixieland tunes to mix it up. Sometimes the dancers want to hear a rhumba or a samba, and we have those in there, too.”

Giordano’s score-collecting mania started just in time for him to locate the books – the complete set of parts and scores – of long-gone bands. He now has tens of thousands of charts in his collection, most of them stored in the house that adjoins his residence. They’re catalogued by accession number in a computer database that replaced a system of index cards – “I threw away about 30,000 index cards one day. The garbage man thought I was nuts.”

The many faces of "Midnight Waltz"
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Along with the scores, he collects sheet music. “This is some of the fun stuff that I have,” he says, pulling out a wad of music that turns out to be one song in a dozen or so editions, each with a different territory band on the cover. “I’ve never even heard of this tune, ‘The Midnight Waltz,’ but look at all the different bands that got on there. It just goes on and on: Seattle Harmony Kings, Vincent Rose, Bernie Cummins – and how about Frieda Sanka and Her Toadstool Orchestra?”

We’re now in his upstairs office, where more photos cover the walls: Bing Crosby, Lew Brown, Rudy Vallee, an autographed photo of Hal Roach Studios composer Marvin Hatley, responsible for some of that “Little Rascals” music. Here’s a portrait of Duke Ellington and his band, which all the members autographed, and here’s the same from the Paul Whiteman ensemble, including autographs from Frankie Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden and, at the piano, Ramona.

He plucks a 78 from a shelf. “Listen to this. It’s Nat Shilkret and His Orchestra. Hear that? You hear everything, down to the ping of the cymbal. It’s called ‘When Sweet Susie Goes Steppin’ By.’ I love this tune. People say, ‘Oh, those old scratchy 78s, they’ve got no fidelity.’ Yes they do.” Next he plays a copy of a 78 that has three songs hidden on each side – Ray Noble’s puzzle record, its concentric grooves leaving the tune that plays pretty much to chance, but culminating in Al Bowlly’s vocal on the appropriately chosen “You’re Driving Me Crazy.”

As good as they sound, there’s an unmatchable bite to the sound of in-person brass and reeds, along with the excitement an audience brings to a performance. And the level of talent has evolved so that each member of the group has not only a thorough grounding in the music of the past but also the chops to tear into challenging solos. The line-up these days includes Jon-Erik Kellso and Mike Ponella on trumpets; Jim Fryer on trombone; reedmen Dan Levinson, Dan Block, and Mark Lopeman; violinist Andy Stein, who doubles on baritone sax; Peter Yarin playing piano and celeste; Ken Salvo on guitar and banjo; and Paul Wells surrounded by every known percussion item.

“The times have gone,” Vince says with a shrug, “so the music from the past – there’s no recognition for it. I just have to make myself happy, and if there are a couple of people I can reach along the way – that’s fine.”


Truls Aslaksby said...

Some people, like V.G., deserve to live forever. That being not the case, what a thrill to have him and his guys around NOW, playing at the height of their powers!

Harry Minot said...

I have read and re-read this piece over and over. The Giordano connection with Bill Challis has special importance. I attended a Nighthawks performance in Westport CT last summer. A guy came up to me and asked what a "young fellow" like me was doing, arriving more than an hour early for the performance (in order to snag a prime spot for listening). I explained the importance of Giordano's work, and his Challis connection. The guy's jaw dropped. And then he identified himself as Challis' nephew. Ain't life fun?