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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.
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