The jazz and pop music of the 1920s and 1930s isn’t just a hobby for Vince Giordano. It’s his life.
This month, Giordano and the Nighthawks, the 11-piece band that won a Grammy Award for its work on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” has made the restaurant Iguana NYC its new home for biweekly gigs to share the music of jazz’s golden age.
Giordano, who plays the tuba, bass saxophone, stand-up bass, banjo, guitar, piano, and drums in addition to leading the Nighthawks, was introduced to early jazz by listening to his grandmother’s phonograph records.
“The music was just so dynamic and really peppy and on top of the beat, and it just really grabbed me,” the bandleader said.
When Giordano founded the Nighthawks in the 1970s, its members had been practicing musicians in the 1920s. As the band’s makeup has changed over the years, new members have had to learn the intricacies of ’20s and ’30s music by listening to recorded samples of the genre.
“Playing in this style of music is almost like playing a new language, and the way musicians played was definitely different from how people play today,” Giordano said.
At Iguana NYC, you can listen to early jazz music in person, rather than on a scratchy record, which, Giordano says, makes all the difference.
“I have my fellas play with the real intensity and belief and love of the original recording and the original players,” he said. “And many times we have the actual transcribed solo that Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke or Benny Goodman played because I’m a believer of people playing jazz and doing all types of beautiful things with their own devices, but when these people that I just mentioned played, they were really composing on the spot. I think young people today should hear those notes in today’s world and with a high fidelity—not to be subjected to a 78 RPM recording.”
Having a regular performance space works for the band members too, making it easy for them to focus on the music without having to worry about the mysteries of a new venue or moving instruments, books, and stands around.
“I have 2,500 tunes at the restaurant and 60,000 here at the house, so we’re always trying out new material,” Giordano said, adding that he often gets song requests by email and phone before gigs. “It’s everything from classic early Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke to ... a pre-Code film music title, Broadway tunes, pop tunes of those days. And of course we play some traditional New Orleans jazz music, so we try to make it varied and fun,” he said. “It’s not like a Broadway show where you play the same thing every night.”
The band’s work on “Boardwalk Empire” has helped popularize music of the ’20s and ’30s, much like “The Sting” did for ragtime music in the 1970s.
“My good friend Wynton Marsalis said we need to preach how we should learn and love and pay attention to early jazz,” Giordano said. “I definitely think there’s a lot more interest in the 1920s. ... I was sort of a lone wolf starting out, and even musicians who were around in the ’20s and ’30s were like, ‘You can modernize your stuff,’ but this is my belief and this is my religion and this is my calling.”
Giordano enjoys sharing his music with regular listeners at the restaurant, as well as people visiting New York from all over the world.
“I’ve been involved with this music since I was five, so this is a whole lifetime of listening and learning and getting this music out there for people of these times to hear,” Giordano said. “It’s just always been my life and my passion and my hobby and my work, so I hope to continue as long as I can.”
Iguana NYC is located at 240 W. 54th St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks perform three sets every Monday and Tuesday, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Music cover charge is $15 cash at the door, plus a food and drink minimum of $20.