My Time With The Nighthawks

Such is the nature of pandemia—with its unapologetic ravaging of one’s gigging calendar—that to find inspiration, it can be useful to look backwards. And lately I’ve been thinking back on my two-or-so years leading the sax section in Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.

What’s unique about this band is… well, everything. But let’s start with the fact that the band plays Mondays and Tuesdays on the second floor of a place in Manhattan called Iguana. You might be thinking that it’s a venue known for its early jazz, but you’d be wrong. The building’s first few floors is a renowned Latin nightclub (a packed salsa discotheque on the weekends), and on Monday they hose down the place, put out some tables and turn it into a Mexican restaurant where the band has its residency.

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Two floors above contains sports-team style lockers, where the band changes into its tuxedo gigging clothes and where Vince stores all the band equipment (of which there’s a lot). And on the floor directly above… well, an unrelated and multi-police-raided questionable massage parlor. (It’s fair to say depending on which floor they visit, customers could leave the building satisfied for completely different reasons. Only in NY!)

Anyway as I was saying—the band plays in a Mexican restaurant complete with Hispanic wait staff, dressed in Gaucho-esque costumes and serving you Mexican food while you watch a tuxedo clad 11-piece 1920s jazz orchestra. (I’ll say it again: only in NY!)

Nighthawks-at-Iguana
Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, pictured here at their regular gig at NYC’s Iguana (Photo by Neal Siegal; courtesy vincegiordano.com)

And the gig—well, I would turn up at 7 pm (gig was at 8), go up to my locker, change into my tux, and then set up my six instruments. Yep, six instruments. As leader of the sax section you have to play alto, soprano, and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute. Some of these horns you might not play all night—or sometimes you might only play two bars on one of them. It depends on what tunes Vince feels like calling from the band book. But such is the dedication to the music, that you need to be prepared for anything.

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The band book (ie: collection of charts) is unlike any I’ve ever played. To be specific, it’s not a book as such. Each chair has its own crate of books, containing over 2000 charts. An awe-inspiring comprehensive history of music crammed together, all in various stages of disrepair (some charts have so much scotch tape holding them together, the band could get a 3M endorsement). But for the over-ambitious thinking they could memorize the book, think again. During every show he would throw us a new chart to play. And I literally mean, he throws. A bouquet of early jazz tossed to unlikely tuxedo-clad jazz-bridesmaids. (So not only do you have to be a great sight reader, you also have to be a good catch.)

Nighthawks logoI could write a whole column just on the charts themselves: an amazing history of the music all in one place; all in various states of legibility due to the 30-odd years of pencil scribblings and edits on them. So the gig doesn’t just require you to be a great sight reader (and catch), you also have to be psychic: some of the pencil markings “is good” (ie: should be played) and others to be ignored. There are two ways to approach each pencil marking: either guess (50% chance of success) or just be in the band for long enough to know how it’s supposed to go.

This brings me to my next point: a band like this doesn’t work without its regular members. This band has been performing together for decades. A band with this much history becomes something greater than its book; with a touch of its own folklore tradition. Any great large jazz ensemble evolves beyond the notes on the page, but this puts a lot of pressure on the subs who get called to fill in.

(I must admit, one of my guilty pleasures was watching the beads of nervous sweat form on the brow of a sub as they try to figure out what the hell was happening. And I don’t blame them: coming in to sub on this gig is like being a blind man at an orgy—you just pray that the guy next to you will explain what goes where so you don’t end up screwing yourself.)

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But perhaps the most stressful part of the gig: pulling out the bloody charts (more or less numerically ordered) from the book five minutes before the show. At 7:55 pm, Vince calls out the chart numbers that he wants to play—and you have to pick them out of the crate and put them in order. He does this, however, at breakneck speed like a game of Adderall-infused Bingo. And if you miss one or two numbers, you’ve got to bug the other guys next to you to fill in the blanks. (“Did he call 70 or 70X?”) There’s always just a smidgen of doubt that you got out the right charts—but that only adds to the excitement of the gig.

And the bandleader, Vince Giordano: totally insane. You have to be, to be doing what he’s been doing for the last 40 or so years. And I mean this with great respect. (Honestly, any jazz musician who is not insane after 40 years in the biz just wasn’t trying hard enough.) Vince has been playing this music since it was cool, no longer cool, and then cool again.

The energy of the entire band comes from him. Even before the first note, the momentum starts with his counting off the first tune… like the engine pulling along a locomotive… except that this train pulls out of the station at 100 mph. The tempo is dictated with the tapping of his foot… but it’s not just any foot tap—it’s a Vince Giordano foot tap: his entire body goes into it. You can feel it through the floor, and the energy launches the band into it’s first bar.

Vince and the Nighthawks at the New York Hot Jazz Festival (Photo: Aidan Grant)
Vince and the Nighthawks at the New York Hot Jazz Festival (Photo: Aidan Grant)

Vince has a long-standing reputation of being a tough bandleader. In the NY scene, it’s a badge of honor to be fired from his band. (Some legends have been fired multiple times over the years. Respect!) But perhaps what some saw as tough, I always saw as passion. Musically he loves what he’s doing and knows what he wants. And, as a bandleader myself, I’m aware of how tough the business is. On top of directing the music, the guy arrives four hours before downbeat to set up the stage, and stays an hour or so after the gig breaking it all down (with the help of his amazing partner Carol).

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And the great thing about Vince—and one of the reasons I valued my education from him—is that he not only tells you what he wants from you (“you need to articulate the melody like this”… “you need to be more up on the beat,” etc.) but then he goes home after the gig that night and emails you three recordings to demonstrate it. No bandleader I’ve ever worked for was able to articulate what they musically want with this degree of focus and accuracy.

Yep, there were times he got pissed and yelled at the band. But to me, it never felt personal. It was always about the music. It was always with the drive to get us all playing better.

And the guy is fearless… which, as a sideman, felt great to be on his stage. I recall one time, we were between songs, and some entitled schmuck in the audience starts to play (uninvited, mind you) a harmonica. And he was motioning the band to join him. It was awkward as hell. (I’m always fascinated with the connection between bravado and lack of self-awareness. Oy vey!)

We didn’t know what to do, so some of the guys in the band sheepishly started to play along with the guy. Vince was noticeably non-responsive at first. But after a minute or so, he cuts off the band and jumps of the stage to charge at this idiot, right in front of the audience. What a sight to behold! Amongst a heated exchange, the only words that stuck out in my memory was Vince proudly exclaiming his territory: “This is my toilet! My toilet!!” Hahahahaha… I was certainly proud to be in his band that night.

So when all this mess is over and once again you’re allowed out of your quarantined bunkers, make a trip to Iguana in NY to experience Vince and his band. It’s the real deal. I can only aspire to one day be like him and continue the tradition of bandleading forward for another generation. I’m already in preliminary talks with 3M.

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