With his right arm resting on the body of his bass saxophone, and the other arm draped around the shoulder of his best gal—his stand-up bass—I am captivated by the silver haired fox on the bandstand. I know I am in for a treat. The tableau reminds me of a scene from an old movie. The front seat of a jalopy, a convertible two-seater, not something a struggling Romeo can afford, but Hollywood sells it by explaining the convertible top is broken and can no longer be closed and the occasional backfiring engine adds just the right happy/sad sound to punctuate our hero’s predicament. It all works because it forces our couple to get closer. (Oh, that cold wind!) But on this stage, on this night, it’s a managé a quatre because in between the stand-up bass and Mr. Vince Giordano is the even sexier tuba. This cozy configuration is perfect, ergonomic synergy, as the bass is brushed off and the maestro grabs his other side piece, no one’s feelings are hurt…it’s just the groove, baby.
Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks are in Southern California playing a concert at the Soraya Theatre on the Cal State Northridge Campus. A lovely contingency of local swing lovin’ music fans are out and, I might add, more professional musicians in attendance than usual—because this is special. I have been lucky enough to hear them in NYC. The woman who had me join her at Jazz festivals when I was young is about to be “Nighthawked.” (You’re welcome, Mom.)
You know what they say about opinions….everyone has one. I cleaned it up, keeping with the theme of a more wholesome time. When talking about any art, can anything ever be a fact? I think it can. Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks are the best in the world at what they do. I have heard others, even one of the largest groups from Europe. The charts might be very similar, the level of musicianship on the bandstand equivalent, but there is something in this ensemble of gentlemen that is unique. They swing those charts like a jam. To some reading that might seem like a given but when everything is written out sometimes the swing isn’t front and center. It can be glorious music, but you can miss some of the HOT that precedes the word “Jazz.” The Nighthawks do not miss the swing.
After the concert I called a Nighthawk on his bat phone, and asked him: what is the magic elixir that Vince has? What are the prerequisites for being part of this band? You must be a great reader, you need to have a real feel for the music and the style of the period, and of course being a good team player. Well that all seems standard. Tell us something we don’t know!!
There is a saying in the film business that you hear directors talk about on chat shows. The key is in the casting. And the secret sauce of the Nighthawks is Vince’s ability to cast. According to my Hawk friend, even the sub list is small. That same friend told me that after a year and a half of not playing together because of the pandemic, he thought certainly there would be a short learning curve to get back into the literal swing. He said there wasn’t. They sat down at a rehearsal, and it was as if no time had passed. That might be the only part of the magic that makes sense. This group has performed together for so long their collective muscle memory takes over. They breathe and play as one organism and when you see them live you cannot believe how glorious it sounds. They are a beast of a group that swings from their soul and Vince Giordano is the heart of the beast. His anecdotes that are sprinkled throughout the evening are the best kind of “infotainment.” They are wonderful pieces of history and I always want more. His singing gives us the feeling of the period without imitation. I wanted his mic turned up a bit.
The amount of sheer will, determination, and passion it takes to keep this size of a group together is nothing short of miraculous. It is a life’s work, and the word “work” can NOT be overstated. It is a monstrous undertaking, and one I don’t think most people can really understand. It requires relationship building, finagling, and cerebral gaffers’ tape. I understand that some choices that move the band forward may be based in practicality and that, too is part of the work. If the shark doesn’t move, it dies.
Guesting with The Nighthawks on this evening was Loudon Wainwright III. I didn’t understand any of Mr. Wainwright’s choices, literally and figuratively. There was so much flailing of arms and legs at one point I thought we might go airborne. As a musician friend said: “I was concerned I might have to jump onstage to pull up his pants.” The other problem with the flapping was it exacerbated the pitch issues. Breath support for a singer is mandatory to keep the control of the voice. I wanted to hear the words, but often he would yell into the mic which would further distort.
I have never been precious about the old tunes, nor am I a nostalgia purist. You need not have an amazing voice to sing this music. But even the simplest tunes from this golden era have something to say. Poignant, funny, heartbreaking, or all of the above. I want to hear those words. I want whoever performs the tunes to show care.
I am the vaguely proud holder of a theatre degree from UCLA and as the saying goes that and $2.50 can get me across town on a bus. You can’t even earn one of those degrees without sitting through many uncomfortable performances—some of which I may or may not have been in. One more bad performance isn’t what most upset me. The best jazz ensemble of its kind deserved better attention. I wish it was just a case of my opinion, but it wasn’t.
One of the short intros that Vince told on that night, was of a conversation urging a person to hire Duke Ellington’s band. That he was crazy if he didn’t hire this band…that a band like this was a once in a thousand-year occurrence. If you consider yourself a fan of early Jazz and you have the means to get to New York City—do it! If you miss the chance to experience Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks, you may miss the perfect, swinging combination of bandleader, musicians, and arrangements that may never be heard again…unless you’ve really got a thousand years to spare!