Mondays with Morgan: Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks Transcend “Retro” in Jubilant, History-Stuffed Set at Birdland

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

On 17 July, Enos headed to Birdland to see Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, who have performed 1920s and ‘30s big band music with painstaking detail since the 1970s and been featured in film and TV from The Aviator to Boardwalk Empire

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See the bottom of this article for a link to Giordano’s website – and the Nighthawks’ future engagements at Birdland, where they perform each Monday evening.

Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks playing at Birdland
Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks. Photo credit: Neal Siegal

In the dog days of summer, there’s nothing more stifling than a black tuxedo. 

One evening in mid-July – the hottest month in recorded history, as projected by NASADouglas Marriner climbed out of the belly of Birdland, the historic NYC jazz club. He’d been packed like sardines with his accompanists; when he stepped out between sets, the smothering humidity offered zero reprieve.

The drummer and percussionist was subbing in Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, an ensemble that, for almost half a century, has recreated early big-band music from the 1920’s and ‘30s with scrupulous care.

A fascinating 2016 documentary, Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past, elucidates string bassist, tubist, bass saxophonist, and bandleader Giordano’s singular vision, storehouse of knowledge and uncommon intensity. Which partly explains the tuxes.

“Vince has solved the problem of derelict jazz musicians by simply having everybody wear a tux all the time,” Nighthawks reedist Mark Lopeman says in the doc. “I’ve seen him send guys home because they didn’t have appropriate shoes to wear with the tux – or because it wasn’t really a tux; it was tux-like.”

Mark Lopeman on sax and Vince Giordano on tuba
Mark Lopeman (saxophone), Vince Giordano (tuba). Photo credit: Morgan Enos

Catty-corner from Birdland on 44th St., we find a diner with sufficient air conditioning. But despite the sweat, Marriner – a young gun who’s only subbed with the decades-old ensemble for a handful of years – never seemed resentful of the tux. Rather, his mood was downright breezy.

“I’ve got the best seat in the house,” he glowed to LondonJazz over a cappuccino. “Even though I’m sort of hearing the sound come off the reverberating back – when they’re playing with that vintage vibrato, that really gets me. There’s a level of sensitivity and dynamics – it reveals so much beauty in the music.”

Those suits may be non-negotiable. But when it comes to the Nighthawks, that “beauty” is the throughline and headline – far more than their retro presentation.

They kicked off their set with their usual overture – the old Universal Pictures theme from the late 1930s, which segued into “Black Maria” by Fred Rose, a Nashville industry legend who eventually pivoted from jazz and pop to country and western.

From there, the crew plumbed the richness of pre-war American music: they followed “Black Maria” with “Boogie Woogie”, by cornet legend King Oliver – who Giordano correctly characterised as Louis Armstrong’s “musical papa.” (In 1922, Oliver summoned the 21-year-old Armstrong to Chicago, where he began cutting records that would change jazz forever; the rest is history.)

In an effortless segue, Giordano called Oliver’s monumental “West End Blues”. The most famous recording – by a long shot – of this tune came courtesy of Pops, in 1928.

As composer, conductor, author, and teacher Gunther Schuller put it in 1967, “The clarion call of ‘West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression.” And trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso – a Nighthawk since 1989 – channelled its majesty with authority and aplomb.

It’s impossible to overstate the weight of “West End Blues.” Despite their attentiveness and reactiveness, it’s hard to pin down what the audience – which largely skewed older – took away from that performance, or the set writ large.

“We’re used to usually playing for folks that came out specifically to hear the band, and then some tourists,” Kellso told LondonJazz over Zoom, several days later. “I think with this gig, it’s a little bit the other way.”

But the Nighthawks never budge an inch in response. In the documentary, they play at full velocity to a near-empty club, and a vacant Lincoln Center lawn cleared by a cloudburst. 

“I don’t think Vince thinks that much about trying to play to the tourists. He just does what he does,” Kellso says. “Not that he doesn’t care about what the audience is thinking, but he doesn’t dumb it down.” 

Mark Lopeman on sax and Vince Giordano on tuba
Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Will Anderson (saxophone). Photo credit: Morgan Enos

Accordingly, Giordano and his associates imbued “West End Blues” – and everything else – with their trademark sense of meticulous detail: on the Oliver-via-Armstrong classic, Marriner played “bock-a-da-bock” cymbals à la Zutty Singleton’s on the original recording. Pianist Peter Yarin masterfully channelled the track’s pianist, Earl “Fatha” Hines.

The Nighthawks made a turn for the lighthearted with the galumphing “Swamp Fire,” written by Harold Mooney and arranged by Ad Libby: “We heard this in a lot of crazy cartoons in the early ‘30s,” Giordano said. 

He followed this by paying tribute to the innovative cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke with Walter Donaldson’s “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland to Me”, which Beiderbecke performed with drummer and bandleader Sam Lanin. Beforehand, he related Beiderbecke’s career arc, which included tenures in Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman’s bands.

But Giordano’s contextualisations never tip over into data dumps: he instinctively knows when to get into the ripping music. “And doesn’t that smell like ham and eggs?/ No, that smells like bacon and eggs,” Giordano sang with swinging abandon, pumping away on an aluminium string bass.

“You will not see a higher action than that,” Marriner says of that instrument, referring to the distance between the strings and the neck. “It’s linked to the strength he needs in his fingers to do all these things – and lug all the stuff, dismantle the stage.” (He has a stage crew, but only he knows some of the instruments’ ins and outs.)

Following the Donaldson tune was pianist and composer Luis Russell’s rollicking, early 1930s tune “Goin’ to Town”; Giordano introduced it with a shout out to his daughter, Catherine Russell, an acclaimed vocalist on the scene today, who the Nighthawks worked with on the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack.

To slow things down, the band returned to the well of Armstrong with “Blue Turning Gray Over You”, which Pops recorded twice – once in 1930, and again in the ‘50s. They followed it with Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh’s burbling “Harlem River Quiver.”

“They wrote a zillion songs back in the 1920s and ‘30s,” Giordano explained. “When I’m on the east side, going up the Harlem river – hey, I want to do the Harlem River Quiver!”

Double bass and saxophone from the Nighthawks gig

The condensed journey through early big-band jazz continued with Philip Abraham’s “Limehouse Blues” – performed by Paul Whiteman’s band, but never recorded – as well as Fred Coots’ “Here Comes My Ball and Chain”. As usual, they took a moment to put away the scores entirely and engage in some earthy, traditional New Orleans blowing.

Armstrong rightly looms large in the Nighthawks’ repertoire, but his former wife, Lil Hardin, was a fantastic composer and pivotal figure in his rise – and in a tip of the hat, the group performed her “Jazz Lips”. Key Pops collaborator and pioneering soloist Sidney Bechet got shine, too, with his late-in-life composition “Petite Fleur”.

The set wound down with Walter Jurmann, Gus Kahn and Bronislaw Kaper’s 1937 standard “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” – the opening theme for the Marx Brothers’ canonical film that year, A Day at the Races – as well as Rogers and Hart’s tune from a decade earlier, “You Took Advantage of Me”.

It all concluded with a pair of Duke Ellington classics: “Ring Dem Bells” and “Old Man Blues”. 

“We want to remind you of your homework assignment,” Giordano said between them. “Introduce more young people to this music… because we’d like to have an audience for this in future years, and if kids find out about this when they’re really young, they’ll have a point of reference.”

It’s possible that the Nighthawks come across as a museum piece, or a novelty act, to the uninitiated. But no matter which context they play in, they underline over and over the depth, infectiousness and razzing humour of the source material. 

You’re not left feeling like you got lectured at; you’ll want to go home and crank Hot Five and Hot Seven. Which is the greatest conceivable service to this music: to drag it out of ghostly photos and sputtering 78s and render it timeless, captivating and now.

“Class dismissed,” Giordano declared before launching into “Old Man Blues”. But it never felt like the province of old men – and it never felt like school. 

LINKS: Vince Giordano’s website

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks’ Birdland engagements

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