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Vince Giordano: Hot Jazz for The Aviator

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I think the next few years will really tell if this particular form of music will survive. —Vince Giordano
Vince Giordano, 52, has long been the premier authority on performing 1920s and '30s jazz and popular music. Woody Allen, Madonna, Terry Zweigoff, Garrison Keillor and the New York Philharmonic have all used Giordano and his eleven-piece big band, the Nighthawks, to summon up the days of Busby Berkeley and bathtub gin. Most recently the Nighthawks recorded 22 note-perfect recreations of vintage hits for the soundtrack of The Aviator , Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic. Giordano appears in the film in the center of a vocal trio singing "Happy Feet" ala Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys. While Giordano has done many soundtracks and four CDs of his own, you should see the Nighthawks live as they rip through vintage stompers like "Powerhouse" and "Radio Rhythm." To feel the frenetic pulse of a big band in full swing from just a few feet away—it makes the old music come alive with a shout, and changes forever how you think of the old records. I spoke recently with Giordano about The Aviator and some of his projects and passions.

All About Jazz: How much of your work made it into the final cut of The Aviator?

Vince Giordano: Well, I haven't actually seen the movie yet, but people I've spoken with have told me that the first half is full of our stuff.

AAJ: Is there a soundtrack CD?

VG: Yeah, there were a few unfortunate things that happened. We're on the soundtrack CD but they kind of dropped the ball with credits. The vocal tracks only credit the vocalists, not the Nighthawks. The vocals are by Rufus Wainwright, the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, Martha Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright III and David Johansen and we don't get any credit for backing them up. We're on eight tracks but we're credited for three.

AAJ: You were impressed by the Cocoanut Grove set?

VG: The Cocoanut Grove set was done in Canada and the Grauman's Chinese Theater. They built these massive sets—just unbelievable, they were really breathtaking. The attention to detail was just fantastic, and the money and the labor and the skill. The comic juxtaposition of going back to the club we were playing at the time and having to argue with the owner about fixing the back door—a $25 dollar job—it was a real pinch of reality there.

AAJ: It must be satisfying to see this music you're so passionate about reach such a wide audience?

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VG: I hope it's going to be a success and more young people take notice. The one thing [Leonardo] DiCaprio said to me was, "I had no idea that this music had so much vitality and so much energy to it." You know, a lot of people think of old music coming off records—they never really get into it. He had to bone up on the character of Hughes and the period and the clothes and that's what folks need—to spend a little time and listen to some of the old sounds. So we hope it will influence more people and keep the music alive for another few years. Young ragtime artists are always talking about the influence of The Sting. If I've read it once I've read it a hundred times. There was an immensely popular movie that really went over and really was wonderful for ragtime. So, I'm looking for a movie like that to influence music of the '20s and '30s, where young people will come back and keep saying, "That film was so great, and the music that was in it, and that's what decided me on expanding my career and embracing this music." That's my dream.

AAJ: How did you become a big band leader?

VG: I started working early on with small little combos... everybody's playing, doing the round robin. Which I still enjoy doing, but it kind of got played out for me. I would go back to the recordings and say, "Wow, listen to the discipline." And it wasn't the same all the time like we were doing as kids—it was a combination of orchestrated stuff and loose jazz happening. Listening to a couple of concerts by the New York Jazz Repertory Company really kind of nailed it in for me. I saw these great musicians playing these great scores, reading the original notes and the original solos. These were very capable jazz musicians who could make their own great solos. But they were locked into a certain period that night—whether it was Fletcher Henderson or Bix Beiderbecke—and I said "Ah, so it is possible to do this. It is possible to capture some of what I'd been hearing on records, to bring that into today's time frame." I just love the energy of the earlier jazz. I love the way that they were very limited in certain ways as far as chord progressions. They seem to do a lot within those boundaries. That's the thing that always knocked me out and I wanted to recapture some of that.

AAJ: As a teenager you studied with Bill Challis? [Challis was a legendary arranger for Paul Whiteman and friend of Bix Beiderbecke who arranged the cornetist's piano compositions like "In a Mist" for publication.]

VG: Yeah. When I was studying with Bill I was studying this system that he really insisted that I learn which I completely abandoned. It was called the Shillinger System. Shillinger came along in the early '30s... it was sort of a mathematical way of composing and arranging. Gershwin, Glenn Miller, Ferde Groffe, Bill Challis, many other musicians were interested in this way of making your brain think with mathematics. We went through a lot of this stuff—we didn't even really touch music paper, it was graph paper. It was permutations. I really tried to sway Bill to say, " Look, let's get some manuscript paper and a pencil and watch me write and you can rap me with the ruler so to speak." "No Vince, you really need this." "All right."

AAJ: When you started the Nighthawks in the 1970s it was the era of R. Crumb, Woody Allen, Leon Redbone, and The Sting. Was it considered cool then, kind of counter cultural, to listen to this older music?

VG: No. It was cool for me but my contemporaries—they couldn't understand what the hell I was doing. You know, I'm going through the Navy [Giordano was a member of the United States Navy Show Band 1970-72] and having records there on tape and trying to transcribe some stuff and I had guys that were in the band that had been through Berklee and North Texas and they just shook their heads. They saw no point in what I was doing. They saw no point in going back that far. There was just such a resistance to that. Of course, those guys have gotten a little older, a little mellower, and I think it's much easier now doing that old stuff than it was. I caught Redbone when he first came out [Giordano has since worked many times with Leon Redbone] and I caught the R. Crumb comics with him talking about 78s, but it was almost like being in the closet liking this stuff. You could not readily admit this to most musicians. Thirty years ago, playing vintage jazz was really tough. You just had people questioning you. But, I think, over the years... fellows like Wynton Marsalis, who's had wonderful success with his jazz orchestra, him getting up there and saying, "Look, we like lots of kinds of jazz, but it's okay to like early Louis Armstrong and early Duke Ellington. This is good stuff." My musicians are not fighting me like they used to. He's kind of made my life a little bit easier. It's okay to dig Jelly Roll Morton. It's just as valid as playing something by Coltrane.

AAJ: What is the state of the classic jazz world these days? There is so much more music available on CD that should be reaching a new audience, and yet when I go see classic jazz, it's definitely an older crowd. Is the audience disappearing?

VG: I've noticed some classic jazz festivals have been severely hurt. The audience has been down. There are some young people coming up. What worries me is when this crop of older people go because their touch with this older form of jazz, this is going to be pretty much the last generation. I think the next few years will really tell if this particular form of music will survive.

AAJ: Is there a younger generation of musicians that have the same vision that you do?

VG: There are some wonderful, talented musicians out there. What I fear is—there's not that worry in their minds about the business of the music and the music business. Yeah it's great to play this music and it's great to play your horn, but where are you going to play it and for whom? We hear Mozart and Brahms—all those great composers—because somebody put that machinery together back in the 1800s, guys like Carnegie and whoever put together the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony and so on. They realized that this music must be played and they had the halls and set up the corporations. I don't see that. The jazz clubs in New York are getting smaller and smaller. I hate to say this, but you go to New Orleans and you basically can't hear any traditional jazz anymore. And there are a lot of cities where you would think you could hear some jazz around the country and you can't. There's no place there, there's no business. And we need that to keep the musicians working and to keep the sound so people can come in and discover it, otherwise it's just going to dry up and roll away. One of my speeches at the club at the end of the night is "Please support live music." Whether it's cabaret, whether it's jazz, whether it's country—support live music because you're going to have more fun with live music than with a DJ. There's just something about it.

AAJ: You have mentioned a fantasy of setting up a non-profit space in New York for older jazz.

VG: My plan is to do a non-profit club in New York to bring young kids in during the day and show them films and instruments and, for lack of a better word, kind of Sesame Street it, with some very talented educators that could expose kids to this kind of music so it's not so foreign to them. Then at night have this turn into a real authentic period nightclub. And the fear of losing this place would be taken away because this non-profit corporation would buy the place. That's been the big downfall in clubs. Somebody gets the idea of putting a club with some music in it. Everything's rolling, it's great, the people are coming in and then the landlord comes in, sees what's going on and doubles or quadruples the rent on this guy. This has happened so many times in my lifetime. So all this work, all this publicity, it's all gone, it's right out the window. They don't do that to Carnegie Hall.

A lot of young people really can't get with the fidelity of the old 78-rpm records. It doesn't sound like music of today, because it was recorded different. And I think playing some of this music live for these kids—it kind of opens it up for them. They can touch a trombone and see the reed of a clarinet and then watch some classic footage of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and see what they were when they were young and in action.

AAJ: Would that be a project you would take on?

VG: Absolutely, I would love to be a part of it. I couldn't be the sole entity because, you know, I gotta play some music and there's a lot to organizing all that stuff. I just see this part of the business that's really not being talked about. It's got to be addressed or we're just going to have music on old records and that's going to be the end of it.

AAJ: What other projects would you like to do?

VG: We've done some silent picture scoring. We did three for AMC a couple of years ago, one Buster Keaton [ Sherlock, Jr. ] and two Harold Lloyd's [ Get Out and Get Under, High and Dizzy ] and we performed them live at the East Hampton Film Festival and we went down to Disneyworld and played that. I'd love to do more of that. I'd love to do more silent picture synchronization. Having all this music, I would love to be able to play more of it.

AAJ: How did you come to own so much music? [At present Giordano has inventoried about 98% of his collection of approximately 30,000 big band arrangements, 27,000 pieces of sheet music, and 10,000 silent film cues.]

VG: I really started doing that in the '70s when I realized that there was stuff out there. I started putting ads in The International Musician saying I was looking for old dance band arrangements. I got this letter from a fellow that made Gennett recordings in the '20s, Marion McKay. He named me a price and—boom—I got his library. There were arrangements in there in Hoagy Carmichael's hand.

Another time I was sitting in Peter Duchin's office. Peter Duchin at one point thought of incorporating my band into one of his satellite units and I was talking with him and going over this and his secretary interrupted and said, "Mr. Duchin there's someone on the other line who has a music collection for sale." He just kind of brushed it off. I said, "Wait a minute. Do you mind if I take this number?" So I go to this warehouse in Queens and there's this whole radio library of a guy long forgotten named Arnold Johnson. Arnold Johnson had a band in the '20s and '30s and was the first guy to hire Harold Arlen when he came down from Buffalo and Arlen at the time was writing arrangements, playing piano, singing—which he did with the band. And I've got three of his arrangements which he did in his own handwriting. Now if I wasn't sitting in that office at that time that stuff would probably be out on Staten Island in the big landfill. I cleaned out a theater in St. Louis—the Ambassador Theater—and then I cleaned out a theater in Buffalo New York called Shea's Buffalo Theater.

It was a big vaudeville house and I'm still going through that music. That's how I found that Louis Armstrong "Laughin' Louie" theme, by the way. When Louis was interviewed by George Avakian, I guess in the '50s, they asked him, "On "Laughin' Louis"—what are you playing here?" And Louis couldn't remember, he said, "I think it must have been something I learned as a kid." So Avakian writes in his notes—this is on Rare Batch of Satch , a wonderful LP—"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 something at the Film Forum. I hired a pianist and we're going through all this stuff [old silent film cues], and the pianist started playing this and I fell off my chair. He goes, "What's the matter?" I said, "We found the theme of 'Laughin' Louie!'" I had Avakian's number and I said, "George—listen to this." (Imitating Avakian) "The theme from 'Laughin' Louie!'" It was a stock movie theme from 1921 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. And this was a piece of music that was only four years old and I'm sure he played it over and over again, and it's such a moving melody that it stuck with him. I had a musician come over here one time and look at all this music. He says, "What are you doing with all this stuff? It's worthless." You have your right to an opinion, but I've got to tell you, Henderson used a lot of stock arrangements, Whiteman did, Bix did. They were utilized by a lot of bands in a pinch when they needed to make a record and they didn't have the luxury of hiring an arranger. They would take these arrangements and modify them.

Bill Challis told me that a lot of the stuff on the Henderson bandstand was from modified stocks. I'm still looking for stuff. Where is the Fletcher Henderson book, the Goldkette book, the Bennie Moten book, the Don Redman book? Why was all this stuff pinched or lost? It's amazing how much—these aren't just stock arrangements, these are some of the best writings ever. I've been preserving stuff all my life. It's not just a museum, it's a living museum. What I'm doing is bringing it out there and breathing new life into it and hopefully getting a new audience.

AAJ: It's that passion for details and for the original music and recordings that set the Nighthawks apart. What does "'authenticity" mean to you?

VG: To me, what I hear on those old recordings is a different language from what is being spoken today. I hear a language of musicians that spoke very intensely. They seemed to have more thrust in what they were playing, and more feel, than musicians of today. Use of vibrato was so prevalent in the brass. I keep telling my guys, "Listen to Louis Armstrong, listen to Benny Goodman, particularly at the very end of their phrasing. That was part of the language and it's like cooking a meal. If you're reading from a cookbook and you're missing one of the ingredients it's not going to be the same. It can't be. We don't know what Mozart played like, or Brahms played like.

We don't know how bad or good or fast or slow those fellows played the original arrangements, but we do have the original recordings from the Teens on up and that's great, but it's bad. It's great to hear it, but it's bad when you can't get the musicians to be on the same page as that.

I've been criticized for freezing jazz—playing the notes as written as far as the solos. I just want to say, you know they have the Louis Armstrong festival on WKCR and we listen to Louis. Why do we keep on going back to those recordings? We've heard a lot of people play these songs—same ones—but when Louis played his notes—and those particular notes and those particular inflections that he played— these are the things that we keep going back to. Listen to those notes and listen to the intensity of those notes. These were classic pieces of music. Just like Beethoven's Fifth or Mozart's Magic Flute.

I mean, nobody's changing those notes. They could, but they want to hear what Mozart wrote. Why can't we pay homage to these musicians and the choices of notes that these guys thought in their heads? Before these guys there was no jazz. These were the creators. These were the Mozarts of their time. Do I get a lot of flack from this stuff, I'll tell you. I don't mean to be a museum piece or anything. We take liberties. Sometimes it' s hard to get the enthusiasm from musicians today. The music that we hear on recordings, that was the music of the time, that was the hip stuff, that was the rock and roll. They were up there and the chicks were coming after them.

They were getting the money and they were getting their pictures in Metronome and Downbeat and people were reviewing them and everything was hunky dory. It ain't that way anymore. None of the above happens anymore. And that's fine too, but in a way it's a little melancholy. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks appear Monday and Tuesday nights 8:30-11:30 at Charley O's Times Square Grill, 611 Broadway at West 49th street, Manhattan.


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