On my first trip to New York in October, I was lucky enough to conduct my first live interview with the wonderful Vince Giordano. He was so polite to me, and I will always be grateful to him for steadying my nerves and allowing me to talk to him. We caught up before his show at Iguana NYC on 25th October, and here’s what he had to say. PS: Huge thank you to my Dad for helping me transcribe the interview, and my condolences to the family of the late Rich Conaty, who sadly passed away recently:
1. When and how did your love of music from the 20’s and 30’s begin?
The initial moment when I found out I loved the music of the 1920’s and 30’s was when I discovered a slew of phonograph records from the 20’s in my grandmother’s collection. She had an old wind-up gramophone from 1923 when she got married. That was her wedding present, and at that time I was just listening to regular, what you call popular music on the radio and not too excited about How Much is That Doggie in the Window? and Oh My Papa. You can check those things out later and just see how dismal those things are and were. And I wound up the phonograph and played these great dance records that she had. She was a big fan of Al Jolson. She had a Louis Armstrong record in there called Blue Again, she had a King Oliver record in there, she had some Ethel Waters. For a white lady in Brooklyn she was pretty diverse, and I just fell in love with that sound, that energy, the great excitement that I heard coming off those old scratchy discs. I also had developed an ear for this music because when I was a kid I’d come home from school and they’d run the old Laurel and Hardy movies that had Leroy Shield’s music, which I found out later, the black and white cartoons of Warner Brothers, Max Fleischer. These things were set in the early 1930’s but they still had that feeling of the 20’s, syncopation and jazz. So I loved this stuff and all of the rest of the kids my age could not understand that at all and they would call this music ‘cartoon music’ or they would call it Little Rascals music for the Our Gang comedies. And I said “OK, whatever”, you know, I just put up with it.
2. How did The Nighthawks get started?
The Nighthawks got started actually not by me, by a friend of mine named Rich Conaty who’s got a radio show every Sunday night on WMQZ. You can get that on the web. I was in Italy playing with a little banjo band for a summer and I got a postcard from a friend of mine and he says “You’d better get back here, there’s some fella that’s starting a Paul Whiteman band.” I said “Oh my goodness, this is too good to be true.” So what happened was that Rich, who’s not a musician, wound up getting these Xeroxes of old Paul Whiteman arrangements and he tried to hold these rehearsals where he was going which was Fordham University. It was really hard because number one: the Whiteman orchestrations were twenty-four twenty-five pieces, there was no possible work in sight so there was nobody getting paid. He was trying to put this all together and I came back and it was like four or five guys trying to play these charts, which was not enough guys. We would say “What’s happening here?”, “Well that’s the strings” and there were no strings, “What’s happening here?”, “Yeah, that’s the fifth saxophone”, and we didn’t have five saxophones. So, I had collected these old printed stock arrangements that were done by the publishers and I said “Rich let’s try these because it’s only ten people and you can play with a smaller combination and we’ll still get a sound versus this which is too hard to put together.” So, we did that and we were partners and then Rich got a job in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania doing a radio show there and he left New York. I was here with the music and the band and I said “Well I guess I’m the leader.” That’s how I became the leader, by default.
3. How did you manage to acquire a collection of so many scores?
I acquired all these scores: first I used to hang out with a lot of older musicians and they said “Oh, you really like that old music? Wow, I threw away so much of that stuff, sheet music, music scores, records.” I said “Why?”, “Well because they were old and they were passé, we’re moving on as decades move on.” So I said “Alright, let me write an ad in the musicians paper”. There was a musicians’ union paper here in New York and then one that went out to all the musicians all over the country. And I was just inundated with people calling me up and writing me saying I have all this music in my garage, in my basement, in my barn, closet, just take it or let’s make a deal. So that was going OK but then I decided even to push the envelope a little further. At the end of each of the magazines that come out every month here in New York there was an obituary section. This sounds a little weird but I’ll smooth this out nicely. I hand wrote, because we didn’t have computers back then, and I thought the typewriter might be too formal and I wanted to be just natural and say “I’m really sorry to hear about Mr X’s passing, I didn’t know him (it was the same stock letter all the time), I’m a young musician (which I was, I was in my twenties back then) and I am trying to keep this music alive, trying to keep a band alive and these are the things I’m looking for, and if at any point you consider selling some of this please let me know and here’s a self-addressed stamped envelope and here’s my phone number.” Well, again, people thought this was so great; they had no idea what to do with this music. They weren’t musicians. They’d look at it and it looked like hieroglyphics to them. So I’d go over and either take the stuff or make a deal or some people said “You’re too late because when Mr X was ill we just bundled it up and we put it on the kerb and threw it out.” And then, finally, you’d get some relative of Mr X wire me and they say “This is really valuable stuff, it’s worth like 20 or 30,000 dollars”, So I’d say “OK, I can’t afford that.” And then I cleaned out three movie theatres that, thanks to them, I guess they were lazy. When they stopped using this music in the thirties someone didn’t throw it out. They just left it there; it was in the basement, so I was very happy to clean it out for them.
4. If you could play any other musical instrument aside from the Bass Saxophone which one would it be?
Oh, I play six instruments. I have a bass saxophone. I have a tuba and I have a bass made of aluminium, and I also play banjo, guitar and those are my drums and that’s my piano.
5. What was it like to work with Liza Minnelli on the Sophie Tucker number You’ve Gotta See Mama Ev’ry Night (Or You Can’t See Mama At All) for Volume Two of the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack?
Working with Liza Minnelli was a real thrill. She had come in to see us a few times; she’s great friends with Michael Feinstein. So we met and we talked and, you know, I didn’t get personal with her about her Mom or any of that stuff. I’m sure she gets inundated with all that kind of stuff, so we just talked about stuff and, this is building up into your answer here. One of the things that thrilled me was I asked her “Miss Minnelli, did you ever meet Harold Arlen?” You know he wrote so many things and of course Over the Rainbow. And she said “Oh Harold Arlen came to our house all the time.” And she then proceeds to channel Harold Arlen and she starts talking like him and singing like him. Like whoa! This was really scary. This was at a club where we used to work called Sofia’s. So I tell the people on Boardwalk “You’ll never believe who showed up last night – it was Liza Minnelli.” They said “Really? Do you think she’d want to sing on our soundtrack?” I said “I don’t know.” So I wrote to Michael and they got through the agents and they told her that we needed this Sophie Tucker song. We sent the recording over, the MP3, and she wanted it in a different key than Sophie and I said fine. And she came in with her musical director, a great musician named Billy Stritch, and it was just so joyous. And at the end of the session she said “Who wants to take pictures?” You know, not like a big star, like some of those stars are sort of “Get away from me, get away!” We took all pictures and we all put it up on Facebook. She was so happy to be part of this and we were so happy to work with her.
6. What is your favourite event/venue that ‘The Nighthawks’ have ever played at?
Mmm, that’s hard because we’ve played so many events that really moved me so much. I’ll say one of the most favourite events was when we did the 90th anniversary of the Rhapsody in Blue. We did it here in New York City at Town Hall which is a big, beautiful theatre. Believe it or not we almost didn’t do it because we had forgotten that the date was coming up. So we went to the Town Hall with this wonderful conductor Maurice Peress. They said there was no-one using the hall that night. It was only three weeks away and they said “We love the idea, we love you guys, but I think it’s a little crazy. It’s only three weeks, how you gonna do this?” I said “Well look, if Gershwin wrote the Rhapsody in Blue in two weeks we’re gonna do our darndest to get the word out.” We got on the radio. Late at night when symphony orchestras were letting out I had an old newspaper boy cap and sunglasses and I was shamelessly handing out our cards, our Paul Whiteman cards with the little picture of his face, and the cartoon. We sold out, we sold 1400 seats! His music, Gershwin’s music, was so wonderful and it was very moving. Everyone just cheered when we came on the stage. We had to tell them to stop! It was nice, but we had to start the concert. That was a really great feeling. Sometimes, in contrast we’ll play a job, maybe here tonight, and the audience may be two or three times louder than us and there’s nothing I can do about it.
7. Who is your idol, and why?
Oh that’s so hard too, that’s really hard. People are always asking me what’s my favourite composer, what’s my favourite band leader, what’s my favourite singer? I can’t answer that because the list would be too long. I love so many bands: American bands, British bands. I love Bing Crosby; I love Al Bowlly; I love Ethel Waters, Bix Beiderbecke, Nat Gonella. I mean it just goes on and on and on. So I truly can’t fairly answer that, I’m sorry.
8. Which of your forays into the motion picture/television soundtrack business has been your favourite?
Myself and Vince Giordano.
Well, I guess probably Boardwalk, because it lasted five years which was nice. It was nice to be employed and have my own little time machine. Because, you know, there is no time machine that I’ve found yet. They wanted us to play the music in the proper way, not jazzing it up or rock ‘n’ rolling it up, as other film projects, which I’m not involved with, have done. They made sure they had the right clothing on everyone. It was just done proper. They were real nit-pickers too. If a song was from 1925 and it was supposed to be 1924 they said “No, you can’t do that.” I said “Who’s going to know?” They didn’t want any people writing in saying you’re off by a year. And we had some of those people too. “I don’t think that song was that popular back then.” I’d say “Jeez, you know?” But Boardwalk was a real wonderful experience. To do so much work with different singers and all the repertoire we went through. So, it was great.
9. Do you have any tastes in music that may surprise people?
No. I’m pretty obvious. It’s music of the 20’s and 30’s. I mean I could go back a little bit to the ‘teens, and I might go a little bit forwards. I’ll listen to it and I’ll tolerate it, but it’s not really where I’m at. This is where the water sits.
10. Is there any medium that yourself and The Nighthawks have yet to experience, but would like to delve into?
Well, you know, believe it or not we’ve made everything from a cylinder to a CD. We made a cylinder called The Moon and You. We haven’t made a 78, which is hard to do these days. But I imagine there’s somebody out there that’s doing it. I mean, this one fantasy that I have is to do something like a radio show or something that we can do more often to spread the word. Getting back to Boardwalk, that’s another important part. We won a Grammy for the soundtrack. That was nice, but the most important part of Boardwalk for me was that it exposed lots and lots of people to this music in one fell swoop. A lot of young people heard it and it started a renaissance of a lot of young musicians taking up the styles of the 20’s and the 30’s. So that was great, I was always looking for something like that. You know, when I was young we had a movie called The Sting. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that? It was set in the 30’s and they used Scott Joplin music which technically really wasn’t appropriate. Ragtime was dead, but it worked because it was a good storyline, the acting was great. So this Joplin music had a wonderful resurgence and renaissance. Boardwalk wasn’t as big as The Sting. It wasn’t in movie houses, it was on certain television networks like HBO which a lot of people don’t have here in the States.
11. Do you think that it’s important to expose today’s generation of young people to heritage music such as this? If so, why?
Yeah, I think young people should be exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. classical music, jazz, popular music, even country and western and some latin. Young people today only know about a certain genre of music which they find on their own or with their peers. I look at music like a big buffet table, and you have so many wonderful things to experience on that buffet table. Why would you want to go and keep eating the doughnuts and the candies, try some protein, try some greens. Try and get some real substance. I think if more young people had the experience to hear some classical music they’d be more well-rounded.
12. What is your favourite piece to play?
I’m sorry, I carry 25 hundred pieces of music here in all these boxes, and I have 60,000 charts. Tonight we’re gonna sight read which means for the very first time we’re gonna pass out two pieces of music. And it keeps changing which is why I could never do a Broadway show or stuff like that where I would be doing the same exact tunes every day or night. I like to vary it. I like to play all kinds of music: popular music, novelty music, jazz music. We have a little semi-symphonic music we try to play from time to time.
13. The Nighthawks recently contributed to the score of Woody Allen’s new film Cafe Society. I know you have collaborated with Allen on quite a few projects, but was there anything about this experience that was different for you?
Yeah, I started, my first film for Woody Allen was called Zelig which is a really funny film. I was just part of an orchestra, the wonderful Dick Hyman, who you could look up; he’s a genius, he’s almost 90 going on 20. He hired me to be a tuba, bass sax and string bass player in that, and everything was kind of set, you know, with those films. This last one Cafe Society Woody’s people called me and said would you like to be part of it? I said “Sure!” and they said “It’s set in the 30’s” and I said “Great!” and they said they’d like a 16-piece ensemble and I said “OK, we can do it, normally we’re eleven, we can add some strings, add another piano and some more brass and saxes”. Then they called me back and said “Well that’s too expensive”. I said “Well you asked for it”. Then they said “What’s the smallest Big Band you could put together?” I said “We can take a trumpet and a trombone as a brass section, and we add an alto and a tenor as a sax section and then four rhythm. That’s eight, that’s half what you got.” And they said “Great!” And then five, eight days passed by and they called back and they said “Here’s your band: piano, guitar, bass and drums and a lady singer.” I said “We went from 16 people to four? They said “Are you still interested?” I said “Sure, I’m still interested, I’m a little disappointed, you know because my forte is working with big bands.” So we put together different arrangements for a four-piece ensemble which, to be honest, was kinda hard, because it wasn’t too much variation to do. We didn’t have any bass solos or drum solos because they really didn’t do much of that in those years. So it was a piano solo or a guitar solo and that was it. One number I think I did a little bass stop-time and one number we had a little drum stop-time. And they said “Oh, make these songs long.” And I said “Oh God, long?” So I wound up changing keys. It was all Rogers and Hart, which was great, it’s all good music. And that was the story there. We filmed in Brooklyn, most of my filming, believe it or not, is in Brooklyn. I don’t know why, it just happens to be that way. I live in Brooklyn so that makes it nice and I don’t have to commute that much, and it’s just always good to be part of it because it’s part of history. Hopefully these films do OK then more people can appreciate this music. I know I’m not much of a classical person but when the film Amadeus came out many many years ago, probably before your time, it was kind of a Hollywood version of Mozart, it was a big hit. I was in theatre and I turned around and the place was just packed. Every seat was taken and it made me feel good. I had nothing to do with that film but I was so pleased that everyone was there and they had to listen to Mozart and be exposed to Mozart’s music. That was so great.
14. What do you think makes this genre of music so timeless?
Well, someone much older and wiser than me once said that music is a reflection of the times, and the times a reflection of the music. People from those years, particularly the 20’s, late teens, were very optimistic, very carefree, maybe a little silly, maybe a little naïve, but they were really set on having a good time. The Great War was over, World War One, the worst war that anyone had experienced. There was this terrible plague that was about the same time. I don’t know how many it killed, maybe millions. So it was a very grim depressing time. And coming out of the Victorian age. So tempos got faster and people got a little bit more adventuresome in their tune writing. Jazz started to creep in to music, it was known as the Jazz Age of course. So you put all that together and you have this music that was very uplifting. Many times people have come to see us and they told me later, when they were leaving, “You know, I came in, I wasn’t feeling so good tonight, I was kind of depressed or not energised or not feeling well at all. But hearing this music now, I’m in a different place now, I’m in a better place. I’m happier, I’m having more fun and I’m tackling my problems.” And when you watch those films from that time too, you see the people, they’re different from people today. They’re the same as us but they just have that energy. Whether it’s Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or the way people moved or thought about stuff. It’s how excited they were. The same thing was with the music, it had that whole flavour to it. When people hear it, when they’re exposed to it, many of them come away liking it and coming back for more.
Thank you Vince (and The Nighthawks) for a truly spectacular evening, and I hope I can drop by again soon!