Even though the calendar may say 2017, the Roaring Twenties is where you’ll find band leader Vince Giordano’s historical sweet spot. And while many people are content to bask in nostalgia for that bygone era, Giordano has become well-versed enough in it over the years that he’s earned a reputation for his intimate knowledge of that particular time period’s musical legacy. Nattily clad in a tux, you can regularly find Giordano jamming away on either a string bass, bass saxophone or tuba while leading his 10-piece band, The Nighthawks, during a regular Monday and Tuesday night residency at Manhattan’s Iguana NYC.
Over the past few decades, he and his crew have been hired to play in a number of television shows and movies. Filmmakers Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have used the Brooklyn native’s services and he’s most recently been tapped to work on Scorsese’s latest project, a Robert DeNiro/Al Pacino project called The Irishman that’s currently being shot for Netflix. But lest you think Giordano came late to the party, his fascination with vintage swing dates back to when he was a little boy.
“I was 5 years old. I discovered my grandmother’s old wind-up Victrola in Brooklyn, with a stack of records and I found out there was more that was stored away that they didn’t listen to anymore and I was just knocked out by the exciting sounds that came off those discs,” he recalled.
Having moved out to Long Island from Brooklyn when he was 2 in the 1950s, Giordano fell into music through the programs in the Hauppauge School District. It was here that he learned how to play bass. And along the way, he befriended a number of older musicians, whose roots dated back to the 1920s and were happy to indulge the interests of a kid who knew more about Paul Whiteman than The Who. He even wound up studying under Bill Challis, a good friend of the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and a storied jazz arranger for the Whiteman, Goldkette and Casa Loma Orchestras. Giordano’s immersion in music and playing with different small brass and fire department bands negatively affected his grades, which weren’t good enough to get him into college. He instead enlisted in the United States Navy, where his musical abilities landed him in the Navy Show Band, a big band outfit that proved to be a blueprint for the Nighthawks later down the road, both on and off the bandstand.
“It was like a variety act. We did Sousa and military tunes and big band songs and I called it the College of Hard Knocks,” he said. “We had some fantastic times and some unfortunate times. But playing in the Navy Show Band really showed me a lot of what it takes to keep a big band going. You have all this equipment, you really have to be organized and you have to take care of everyone in the band,” he said. “You see the personalities of the people in the band and you see when people don’t get along and you have to figure out how to keep them separate. But it was a great experience.”
Giordano may be best known for his contributions to the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, which was set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era. It wound up being a dream gig for him, particularly given the razor-sharp focus the production insisted on in terms of historical authenticity.
“It was my own little time machine fantasy. As you know, it took place in the 1920s and to be asked to recreate the music for the show and do the best that we can was so great. And then being on set and seeing all the attention paid to detail with the costumes, the props and automobiles fantastic,” he said. “It even extended to the way people talked—they were doing a lot of research all the time to make sure that no modern lingo would get in there. It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. It’s like ice cream—I’ll take another scoop.”
For the 65-year-old band leader, his life has been defined by a music and time that occurred well before he was born. As someone who has a personal collection numbers upwards of 60,000 pieces and includes big band arrangements, silent movie scores, 78-rpm discs and piano rolls, the former Smithtown resident’s passion continues unabated. His reasons for dedicating his life to keeping this legacy going are pretty basic.
“The way people sang and performed was very uplifting. That whole jazz era was high-spirited and people were very enthusiastic about life and any little piece of technology that came out,” he said. “Maybe people were a little sillier, but they had more fun. It was more fun back then. Today, people are jaded, blasé and they’ve seen everything and know everything. Everything is so easy for everyone to get. Back then, they had less, but they really had more, and it comes through in that music.”
Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks appear at Iguana NYC, 250 W. 54th St., Manhattan every Monday and Tuesday. For more information, visit www.vincegiordano.com or call 212-765-5454.