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Vince Giordano: Toe-Tapping and Timeless

Andrew J. Sammut By

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Welcome to the inaugural column "Jazz That Scratches, Swings and Pops

We've all heard Joseph "King" Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke on the Smithsonian Jazz Collection. We know the names because they're "important," but do we ever listen because they're just plain good?

What about Oscar 'Papa' Celestin, Red Nichols or Jabbo Smith? Not exactly names jumping out of the radio or iTunes. Save for a precocious thesis or specialty store, the musicians that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington listened to, played with or even competed against suffer the same fate as Mozart's rivals or Muhammad Ali's trainer: they're historical curiosities for research, not recreation.

For me the jazz of the twenties and early thirties was never just history. I heard Adrian Rollini's bass saxophone long before Charlie Parker's alto, but they both blow me away for different reasons. "Jazz That Scratches, Swings and Pops" spotlights the early jazz you've heard about or never heard at all, not as something we've moved past, but as an exciting experience that doesn't need a time machine, just some speakers.

This is jazz pre-electric recording, pre-World War II and pre-acceptance into conservatories and Carnegie Hall. Jazz grew up in New Orleans brothels, Chicago speakeasies and brawling Kansas City bars. Never naïve or innocent, the music we'll discuss is simply young, with all of the energy, exploration and occasional embarrassment we associate with the time of our lives when things are unsettled and the world is fresh. If it sounds primitive, check your hindsight at the door. There's a treasure of great music between the cracks and scratches of jazz's youth. —Andrew J. Sammut


A lot of scientists will be disappointed to hear that a musician from New York City has perfected time travel.

Past and present fuse when Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks scorch the bandstand at Sofia's on West 46th Street in Manhattan. Every Monday and Tuesday evening, they serve up the music of the 1920s and early '30s with a passion that makes "revival" the understatement of this or any other decade. There's no mannered dusting off of old tunes, or cliché-ridden mimicry. The music is close to a century old, but the pounding in your feet and heart is timeless.

Whether dancing on the floor or in your seat, the Nighthawks' skill, sincerity and swing sweeps your soul. Even clips on Michael Steinman's website "Jazz Lives" will bring sweat to the brow, maybe a tear to the eye. As the Nighthawks' unofficial videographer for over four years, Steinman has filmed and proselytized for Giordano and other musicians dedicated to this chapter of American music. "For Vince," Steinman comments, "there is an almost religious devotion to making sure the music of the first 40 years of the 20th century is never forgotten."

That devotion translates into a benevolent obsession with authenticity, what Giordano calls "the lost language of the way musicians played in those days." John S. Wilson, of The New York Times, reported on Giordano breaking up his first band to restock it with musicians more in touch with that language. Giordano insists on vintage instruments and warm, rich period tones. Most of the time the Nighthawks burn through solos originally improvised on record. The band's book draws from Giordano's private collection of more than 60,000 pieces of original sheet music, acquired through investigations worthy of a Dan Brown novel. Even when he announces the next number or croons some sweet lyrics of yester-decade, it's into an antique 1930 Kellogg radio microphone. Speaking by phone, from his home in Brooklyn, he illustrates the vibrato Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman played at the end of notes. He hums "a little mini shake" with the knowledge of a lifelong scholar and the energy of a kid who discovered it yesterday.

Attention to detail makes for impressive scholarship, but not always great music (as classical music occasionally demonstrates). Steinman praises the "spaciousness and energy" of a Nighthawks performance that makes the music not just recreated, but lived and breathed. With the Nighthawks in town, you're not just hearing Joseph "King" Oliver or Bix Beiderbecke; you're hearing Vince and the guys in the band. From Dan Block's piping clarinet, to Jon-Erik Kellso's bravura trumpet, down to Arnie Kinsella's booming drums (on authentic calf skins, rather than synthetics), admiration and creativity cook the whole room.

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