Vince Giordano: The Fresh Air Interview
This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 06, 2013.
If you love jazz and pop from the 1920s and '30s, you might already love the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. The music played throughout the show is performed by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, and a second album of music from the series was recently released. It features the band performing instrumentals, plus vocal tracks with singers not associated with music of the '20s, like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Neko Case.
Giordano says he's been obsessed with music from the '20s and '30s since he was a child, having discovered it on a Victrola at his grandparents' house. "The sound that was coming out of that old machine and the whole feel and the whole nuance, it just hit me," Giordano tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
He's since become the go-to guy for music of that period. His band performed music in Francis Ford Coppola's film The Cotton Club and in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. Giordano worked with Dick Hyman's Orchestra in several Woody Allen soundtracks, and he played the role of a bass player in Allen's Sweet and Lowdown.
On 1920s big bands
"[Our band is] a big band, but it's a small big band. In the early days of big-band history, the 1920s, most big bands consisted of three brass, which is two trumpets and a trombone, three reeds — that's two altos and a tenor — and they doubled on a lot of instruments like clarinet and soprano and baritone. Then you generally had four in the rhythm section: a piano, a banjo, a drummer and bass instrument, most likely a tuba or bass saxophone or string bass.
"What we're hearing is almost like a unique language that is not spoken that much anymore because of the way these musicians in those years phrased [music]. It was very exciting. It was very on top of the beat. It was very melodic and, for lack of better words, a lot of fun."
On banjo as a percussion instrument
"In the early days of recording, drums were very hard to record. In fact, I met a few drummers who worked in the 1920s and recorded, and the recording engineers were extremely hard on these fellas. They'd say, 'You can use the cymbal, you can possibly use a wood block and a little bit of a snare drum.'
"Bass drum was not allowed at all, so to compensate for the lack of the possibilities of what drum effects could be on a recording, they found that the banjo — and if you look at a banjo, it resembles a drum head and it's got strings on it — it provides a rhythmic pulse."
On how he got involved with Boardwalk Empire
"I've had a repertory band [Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks] close to 40 years now, playing the music of the 1920s and '30s. I did a bunch of earlier films working with Dick Hyman on Woody Allen films, working in the Cotton Club, and I met a gentleman named Randall Poster [music director for Boardwalk Empire] who put me together with Mr. Scorsese for The Aviator. And we had a lot of fun re-creating the music of the 1920s for that film, and so when Boardwalk Empire came about and we're starting in 1919 and Prohibition and hot 1920s music, well, I guess I was the logical choice to do it again."
On how he became interested in big-band 1920s jazz
"For every holiday that would come along — like Thanksgiving or Mother's Day or Christmas or whatever — we would all travel to Brooklyn, back to my roots, to see my grandparents. And they had a wind-up Victrola that was not used anymore. It was sort of in the lost part of the house, and I inquired about it and one day was shown how to wind it up and carefully take the disk, put it on the other turntable and listen to this music.
"In those years, in the 1950s, it was a lot of saccharine music out there, stuff like 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window' and [felt like], 'This is kind of silly.' And getting to Grandma's house and listening to these old jazz recordings, she was a flapper — just the sound that was coming out of that old machine and the whole feel and the whole nuance, it just hit me. I said, 'This is my music.' I have no idea how it all happened, but this became my calling and my religion."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross, continuing our holiday weekend series revisiting our more popular and entertaining interviews of the year.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: The HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," is set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. The show is great in creating its period feel, thanks in large part to the newly recorded music the 1920 and '30s, performed by Vince Giordano and his band the Nighthawks. The second album of music from series came out in the fall. It features Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks performing instrumentals and accompanied by singers, including singers not associated with music of the '20s, such as Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Neko Case.
Vince Giordano has been obsessed with music of the '20s and '30s since he was a child, and in Hollywood, he's become the go-to guy for music of that period. His band performed music in Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Cotton Club" and in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." Giordano worked with Dick Hyman's orchestra on several Woody Allen's soundtracks and played the role of a bass player in Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown."
When Terry spoke with Giordano in October, they started with an instrumental track from the album "Boardwalk Empire Volume 2." Here is "Sugar Foot Stomp," performed by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR FOOD STOMP")
VINCE GIORDANO & THE NIGHTHAWKS: (Instrumental)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That's Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, performing "Sugar Foot Stomp" from the new collection of music from "Boardwalk Empire." Vince Giordano, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your music. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.
VINCE GIORDANO: Oh, it's a great honor to be on the show, Terry, thank you.
GROSS: So what's happening on this track that we just heard that's unique to the period?
GIORDANO: What we're hearing is almost like a unique language that is not spoken very much anymore because the way these musicians in those years phrased, it was very exciting, it was very on top of the beat, and it was very melodic and, for a lack of better words, a lot of fun.
GROSS: It's interesting you say it was on top of the beat. You know, later in jazz it gets very behind the beat, but this is like very on top of the beat and very syncopated.
GROSS: It's interesting, too, like, there's a banjo on the track that we just heard, in the place where you'd later on be hearing a guitar. People think of banjo as being like a country music instrument, you know, bluegrass instrument, and it's interesting to hear it in a jazz setting.
GIORDANO: Well, in the early days of recording, drums were very hard to record. In fact, I met a few drummers who worked in the 1920s and recorded, and the recording engineers were extremely hard on these fellows. They would say you could use the cymbal; you can possibly use a wood block and a little bit of a snare drum. Bass drum was not allowed at all.
So to compensate for the lack of the possibilities of what drum effects could be on a recording, they found that the banjo - and if you look at a banjo, it resembles a drum head, and it's got strings on it, it provides a rhythmic pulse.
GROSS: Many of the characters on "Boardwalk Empire" are fictional. One of the characters, based on a real-life person, is Eddie Cantor. Tell us about the real Eddie Cantor. And I should say on "Boardwalk Empire" he's played by Stephen DeRosa, who's terrific.
GIORDANO: He's wonderful. He's an amazing actor and singer, and he comes into the studio so full of life, like Eddie, and usually gets all his songs in one take, believe it or not. But we take safeties. Eddie Cantor was an amazing man, came from the Lower East Side, poverty, very humble man and great entertainer: Broadway, film, made vaudeville, made many recordings.
GROSS: Yeah, and he was, like, probably best known for the songs "Makin' Whoopie" and "Ma! He's Makin' Eyes At Me."
GIORDANO: Yes, he had a lot of songs that he introduced, and "If You Knew Susie," and "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." And he was an amazing, an amazing performer.
GROSS: I want to play Stephen DeRosa from the new "Boardwalk Empire" collection. This is one of my favorites. The song is called "You'd Be Surprised," and tell us about the original version of this song before we hear it.
GIORDANO: The original, of course, is recorded back around 1919. So it's very challenging to hear for most modern people. For me, I've been listening to this old 78 rpm fidelity for many, many years. And Irving Berlin wrote it, who was an amazing composer, a friend of Eddie from the Lower East Side where they grew up together. it just has a lot of fun, and, you know, a little bit of a wink here, a little double entendre of what they could get away with in 1919.
GROSS: And so Eddie Cantor did the original version?
GROSS: OK, so this is Stephen DeRosa with the Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks band from the new collection of songs from "Boardwalk Empire."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'D BE SURPRISED")
STEPHEN DEROSA: (as Eddie Cantor) (Singing) Johnny was bashful and shy. Nobody understood why Mary loved him. All the other girls passed him by. Everyone wanted to know how she could pick such a beau. With a twinkle in her eye, she made this reply: He's not so good in a crowd but when you get him alone, you'd be surprised. He isn't much at a dance but then when he's taking you home, you'd be surprised. He doesn't look like much of a lover, but you can't judge a book by its cover. He's got the face of an angel, but there's a Devil in his eye.
(Singing) He's such a delicate thing but when he starts in to squeeze, you'd be surprised. He doesn't look very strong but when you sit on his knees, you'd be surprised. At a party or at a ball, I've got to admit that he's nothing at all. But in a Morris chair, you'd be surprised.
GROSS: That's Stephen DeRosa and my guest, Vince Giordano and his band The Nighthawks from the new collection of music from "Boardwalk Empire." And that's such a great recording, and I have to say about Stephen DeRosa, he enunciates so terrifically. I just love the way he seems to enjoy every word that he is saying.
GIORDANO: Yeah, he really embraces the music and being Eddie Cantor, and he just really enjoys getting it as close and as right as he's heard on that recording.
BIANCULLI: Vince Giordano speaking to Terry Gross in October. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from October with musician Vince Giordano. We're revisiting the conversation as part of our holiday week series replaying some of our favorite interviews of the year.
You know, some of the singers that are used in "Boardwalk Empire" really know the period, and some of them really don't, like Patti Smith. I mean, maybe she knows the period, but it's not why we know her. She's - I think she's a good choice, in part, you know, I've interviewed her several times, and I think the first time I talked to her, she told me that her mother was a singer.
Well, her mother loved to sing around the house, and so Patti Smith grew up listening to a lot of jazz recordings. And then she just - I asked her what Patti Smith liked to sing around the house, and I forget whether it was her or her mother who liked to sing songs like "I'm Going to Get You on a Slow Boat to China," the Frank Loesser song. And Patti Smith sang a few bars of it, and I realized wow, she has this other musical life in her head, you know.
GIORDANO: Oh yes. When she was recording with us, in between takes she said this one's for you, mom.
GROSS: Oh, great.
GIORDANO: So there was a lot of that, and she said my mom would be so proud to hear me singing this now.
GROSS: Oh that's - see, I love that.
GIORDANO: Yeah, so...
GROSS: That's one of the things I like about the new album is that people are singing songs from a period, a period that I love but that's maybe a little out of their comfort zone, but they maybe have an affection for anyway. So it's just really interesting to hear them. Let's hear Patti Smith singing "I Ain't Got Nobody" with Vice Giordano & The Nighthawks from the new collection of music from "Boardwalk Empire."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T GOT NOBODY")
PATTI SMITH: (Singing) There's a saying going 'round this town, I'm beginning to think it's true. It's awfully hard to love someone when they don't care about you. I once I had a sweetheart just as good as anyone in this town, but now I'm sad and lonely, he done turned me down. I ain't got nobody and nobody cares for me.
(Singing) That's why I'm sad and lonely. Won't some sweet daddy take a chance with me? I'll sing sweet love songs all the time if you come and be my daddy mine. I ain't got nobody, and nobody cares for me.
GROSS: That was Patti Smith with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks from the new collection of music "Boardwalk Empire: Volume 2." And Vince Giordano is my guest. He is immersed in music from the '20s and '30s, has been playing that music for decades, leading his small big band.
GIORDANO: That's right.
GROSS: And, you know, collecting arrangements from the period and so on. When you started playing music from the '20s - because you realized that's home for you - was it hard to find people to play with who shared your enthusiasm?
GIORDANO: Oh, yes. Most jazz musicians want to play something a little bit more modern, or very modern. You'd get a lot of musicians in my early days of the band who were into the old traditional jazz, New Orleans jazz, Dixieland Jazz, whatever you want to call it. But then they didn't have the ability to be able to read arrangements or charts.
So I pretty much decided on getting a band of professional musicians who had worked, some of them as far back as in the '20s and '30s, because they at least had an understanding of what I was trying to do. And I was very lucky. I got fellas like Clarence Hutchenrider, who used to play with the Casa Loma Band, and Bernie Previn, who was the hot man in the Artie Shaw Band and Carmen Mastren, who played guitar with Tommy Dorsey, still had his banjo - when he was, you know, first starting, he played the banjo - and the great Jimmy Maxwell, who played lead with Benny Goodman. And we became a repertory band.
GROSS: When you were young, you studied for a while with Bill Challis, an arranger who arranged for, among other people, the Paul Whiteman Band. How did you find him, and what are some of the things you learned from him?
GIORDANO: Bill Challis was an interesting man and a very great inspiration to me. When I joined the union when I was 14 years old, we got a little directory of all the musicians, who in it were by instrument - trumpet, trombone, clarinet. And, in the back, there was arrangers.
And I had been reading about the 1920s, and I was particularly fond of a book called "Jazz: The New York Scene," written by Sam Charters and Lenny Kunstadt. And they talked a lot about Bill Challis, working with the Goldkette Band, the Paul Whiteman Band, being friends with Bix Beiderbecke, and being a very avant-garde arranger for that time and very well-respected.
And one day, I was just leafing through my union directory and I see William Challis in Massapequa. And I said, wow, this must be the same fella. So, I was too afraid to call him. I was a teenager. I was about 15, 16 years old, and I wrote him a letter. And I said, I'm a fan of the 1920s. I'm a fan of your work. Would you consider giving me lessons? And he wrote back and he said, sure. So, I lived in Smithtown, and my dad used to have to drive me to Massapequa every Saturday.
So I would take this one-hour course every Saturday, and then have two hours, at least, of talking about his experiences working with the Dorsey Brothers and Bing Crosby and Bix and leading the Fletcher Henderson Band through rehearsals, and Louis Armstrong, and on and on and on. And I learned a lot from him.
GROSS: You have about 60,000 arrangements and transcriptions in your collection. I guess that includes sheet music of all sorts. How do you collect the stuff? Where do you find it now?
GIORDANO: In the past, I used to run an ad in a newspaper called The International Musician. And it went to every musician who was in the union all across the States. And I was looking for music of the '20s, '30s and '40s, and I'd get all kinds of letters, phone calls.
GIORDANO: Then I tried something very different. I handwrote these letters to members of the New York Local who had passed away - their families. And said I'm very sorry that Mr. X has passed away. I'm a young musician trying to keep this music alive. Perhaps someday you might think of parting with these old scores, or whatever.
And people called me. They said, my goodness, we had no idea what to do with this. Or you're too late. We put it all on the curb, and it's gone. Or make me an offer, you know, or it's worth a million dollars. You'd get all of that.
I cleaned out three movie theaters. I was reading an ad in the New York Times that a theater in St. Louis was going to be demolished and there were over 900 boxes of music there. And I flew out there thinking I'd be there for a couple of days. I was there for close to three weeks.
GROSS: Gosh. You were just looking for stuff?
GIORDANO: Yeah. Yeah, going through. And I didn't take it all because I couldn't. I only took what I needed and when the building was imploded, all that music that I left behind that I did not need, was duplicate music, you know, just went.
GROSS: Wow. I guess you can't find much of that at flea markets anymore.
GIORDANO: Not too much. You can find sheet music here and there. EBay is a way I can still find stuff. But having 60,000, you know, I'm sort of at the end of my line, I think.
GIORDANO: And I'm running out of room, too. You know, in collecting all this music for many, many years a lot of folks would come over and criticize. What are you doing with all this stuff, you know, all these cabinets? And over and over and over. And I bought the house next door. You'll never use this stuff.
GROSS: Oh, you had a whole house to store it in?
GIORDANO: I have two houses in Brooklyn. I had to, you know, expand just to house all this stuff.
GROSS: Wow. So you have, like, your own warehouse or library or archive, whatever you want to call it.
GIORDANO: That I live in.
GROSS: But you have an extra one too.
GIORDANO: Yes. Yes. It's not the Collier Brothers yet. It's all organized. It's nice.
GROSS: Oh, oh, yeah. You're not a hoarder.
GIORDANO: I'm a hoarder but one who keeps it all together.
BIANCULLI: Vince Giordano speaking to Terry Gross in October. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from October with musician Vince Giordano. With his band the Nighthawks he's released a second album of period songs recorded for the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."
GROSS: I want to play another recording from Volume II of "Music from Boardwalk Empire." And this is a lot of fun. It's an incredibly politically incorrect song, really offensive lyrics. Offensive to Africans, to African-Americans, to women. Is this like the only opportunity that you have to play music that's, like, musically interesting, interesting for the period but really offensive lyrically?
GIORDANO: Well, you know, there was a lot of stereotype back then.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
GIORDANO: And you had, you know, German Vaudevillians doing German things. You had black Vaudevillians like Bert Williams and you had people dressing in blackface. And you had Italian dialect comedians. It was just a different time, you know.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Would you say that this recording that we're about to hear is an example of the exotica from the period when people were really interested in deepest, darkest Africa? Like, King Tut's tomb had I think recently been unearthed. And that also set off this whole, like, exotica craze in music.
GIORDANO: There was a lot of that dreaming and thinking about going to exotic places. There was a Hawaiian movement at the time, you know, where - not a movement but just the whole slew of songs about going to dreamy Hawaii and, you know, everything is so calm. And the ukuleles are playing and possibly people aren't wearing too many clothes.
GIORDANO: You know, and that excited people. And then there was a Mideast period where people were going, you know, to the sheik of Arabi, you know, with Rudolph Valentino. I think people had all these little fantasies of what it was like to be in another place to get away from their boring lives.
When I met Irving Caesar who wrote "Swanee," you know, which was a big hit for Al Jolson and George Grisham, and he says as far south as I've got was Atlantic City. He says I've never been down South. But here he is writing about the South. And I think they were trying to get the imagination of people listening to this, going and all excited about a new exotic place.
GROSS: Well, let's hear an example of what we're talking about. So here's Rufus Wainwright with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks from the new collection, Volume II of "Boardwalk Empire."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JIMBO JAMBO")
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: (singing) Far away in Jimbo Jambo lives a girl named Simbo Sambo and they say this little town will steal the heart away. When they hear her pretty lingo they fall for this dark skinned bimbo and anyone who's been to Jimbo has as much to say. I'm going back to Jimbo Jambo, find this little Simbo Sambo. She's the sweetest honey lambo that I've ever seen.
(singing) When this bimbo starts to dance to tom-tom melodies where she just shakes the coconuts and flips right off the trees. No one knows how much I am crazy about this little tambo. I'd live in a hut of bamboo if she'd settle down. Oh, I love her and she loves me. Oh, gee, oh, gosh, oh, gosh, oh, gee. And I don't give an embo for any other bimbo in Jimbo Jambo town.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vince Giordano. He leads the band Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. And they perform the music on "Boardwalk Empire." He's been immersed in the music of the '20s and '30s for decades.
There's a song I want to play here that I think a lot of people like myself associate with Hank Williams and it's "The Lovesick Blues." But this is done as a jazz song, not as a country song, and the melody is a different than what I'm used to hearing. The singer is Pokey LaFarge. Tell us about what this recording is modeled on.
GIORDANO: It's modeled after a Vaudevillian who came out of the 1920s named Emmett Miller. Emmett Miller was a Vaudeville singer, a very eccentric singer, a very politically incorrect singer to be quite honest.
GROSS: He sang in blackface, didn't he?
GIORDANO: Yes, he did. And, you know, he did a lot of minstrel work. And, again, some of the things that were happening back then. And the song dates from 1922 and his recording was really popular. He did it a few times when it first came out in the early '20s and then he did a remake for the electrical version of it with a lot of great jazz musicians like the Dorsey Brothers and Eddie Lang.
And I'm sure Hank Williams heard that recording and out of an homage or just out of love, you know, picked it up and revived it and made it his own. And Pokey is a big fan of the country music. He's really a wonderful new star. He's been on David Letterman and he's touring all over the world. He's a young fellow and we're really happy to see him, you know, embracing some of this great old repertoire.
GROSS: Well, Vince Giordano, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure. And thank you for being so devoted to music of the '20s and for playing it so we can continue to hear it and hear that music and in a fresh context and without the scratches.
GIORDANO: Thank you, Terry, and keep on doing what you're doing.
GROSS: So this is Pokey LaFarge with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks from Volume II of "Music from Boardwalk Empire."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVESICK BLUES")
POKEY LAGARGE: (singing) I'm in love, I'm in love with a beautiful gal. That's what's the matter with me. I'm in love, I'm in love with a beautiful gal. She don't care about me. Make her love me, I try. Lord, I sigh and I cry. But she just refuses. And ever since my baby has gone away, I've got them lovesick blues. I got a feeling called the blues, oh, lord, since my baby said good-bye.
(singing) Seems I don't know what to do. All I do is sit and cry, oh, lord. That last long day we spent alone. I'm yearning for her again. She thrilled me, filled me with the kind of loving I never will forget. The way she called sweet daddy, such a beautiful dream. I hate to think it's all over. I lost my heart it seems.
(singing) Yes, it seems that I got so used to you somehow, oh, but I'm nobody's southern daddy now 'cause I'm lonesome. Babe, I got the lovesick blues.
BIANCULLI: That was Pokey LaFarge from the second volume of music from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." Vince Giordano spoke with Terry Gross in October. "Boardwalk Empire Volume II" is now out on CD. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.