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Vince Giordano: Brooklyn’s king of 1920s jazz

Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks orchestra. Courtesy of Vince Giordano

He's heard on `Boardwalk Empire,' in Woody Allen movies

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Anyone who watches “Boardwalk Empire,” about Atlantic City during the 1920s, when corruption ruled the boardwalk and Prohibition was basically ignored there, is familiar with Brooklynite Vince Girodano’s music.

Giordano, 61, who has lived in Midwood since 1979, and his orchestra, the Nighthawks, provide the authentic arrangements that capture the era. But his achievements don’t stop there.

He was featured as both an actor and musician in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film “The Cotton Club,” about the legendary Harlem nightclub of the 1920s and early 1930s. Soon, he received a phone call from Dick Hyman, music director for Woody Allen and a fellow aficionado of 1920s jazz.

For Giordano, this led to parts as a musician in half-a-dozen Woody Allen movies, including “Zelig,” “Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Everyone Says I Love You” and others. In addition, his orchestra has been heard on the soundtracks of “Ghost World,” “Finding Forrester,” “Bullets of Broadway” and other films.

Giordano’s achivements are even more remarkable when you consider that he has rarely played anything other than the jazz and pop music of the 1920s and early ’30s, before the swing era started around 1935.

When he was growing up in Smithtown, Long Island, in the 1960s, he used to visit his grandparents’  house in Brooklyn on every holiday. “They had about 2,000 old phonograph records, all 78 rpm, and a windup Victrola that I still have in my house. They had Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, Ethel Waters, even some Yiddish records (for Jewish neighbors when they visited). I was mesmerized by the sheer energy that they all performed with.”

His friends, who were into the rock music of their era, didn’t know what to make of Vince’s musical tastes. “They used to call it, `The Cartoon Music’ or `That Little Rascals Music,’” Girodano recalls. In the ’60s, TV stations used to regularly show old Laurel and Hardy and Little Rascals shorts and 1930s cartoons that had the older music playing in the background, and that was the only way these friends could relate to it.

When Giordano became a professional musician, he never played in rock bands or wedding bands. Instead, he says, “Every time I played, it was some sort of vintage music, a trio or quartet, often a Dixieland band, even though it was hard to find musicians.” In his teens, he tracked down Bill Challis, a 1920s arranger who was still active, and studied with him.

After a stint in the Navy, where he played with a 22-piece big band, and a concert he attended by the New York Jazz Repertory Company, which concentrated on older forms of jazz, he decided to put together a repertory jazz band of his own. The Nighthawks became a feature at many New York clubs, such as the Red Blazer, Cajun, Cafe Carlysle and currently Sofia's restaurant on West 46th Street.

Much of the music he’s performed in “Boardwalk Empire,” especialy for the first two or three seasons, isn’t really the jazz that people like Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington played as the decade progressed. “Around 1920,” he says, “jazz was just taking shape, and many orchestra leaders weren’t sure which way to go. I call it `rag-a-jazz,’ because it has elements of both jazz and ragtime.”

Among the most important groups that performed this early type of jazz, he says, were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. “But because they were five-piece bands, and we had a 10-piece band in the series, I had to listen to the records, transcribe the music and arrange it for a larger orchestra myself.”

When Giordano, who plays tuba, standup bass, guitar, banjo and guitar, first started, there were still many old-timers for whom the music of the ’20s was nostalgia. While this is not the case now, he says, “People are still playing music of Mozart. The music I love and want to play is just as important.”

Speaking of those early years, by the way, one of the reasons Giordano loves his Midwood home is because it’s across the street from the old Vitagraph movie studios, most recently used for several seasons of “The Cosby Show” and for soap operas but now largely inactive. In the 1910s, Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, then a child actor, and his brother Shemp made several short silent films there, some of them also featuring baseball great Honus Wagner.  

None of these films has been found, says Giordano. But if they were, you can be sure he and his Nighthawks would know how to score the music for them.

July 1, 2013 - 3:00pm


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