Last fall, I was an Associate Producer for an Off-Broadway musical that was playing from Thursday to Sunday at Sofia's Downstairs Theatre at the Edison Hotel and after the show's Monday and Tuesday afternoon rehearsals, the rhythmic, brassy sounds of jazz-age Big Band music would blast down West 46th Street. I'd attempt a discreet boogie to the taped riffs of Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks and tell myself that I had to hear these guys live. I just never got the chance until last Saturday night when the 11-piece band played at Rose Hall for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Giordano's band (originally known as the New Orleans Nighthawks) has been around for 35 years, but seemingly are getting more popular with age. In just the past few years, the band and its music have appeared in Michael Feinstein's PBS series American Songbook, and they've become HBOs go-to vintage jazz band, popping up in the 2009 film version of Grey Gardens, the 2011 mini-series MildrEd Pierce, and the original series Boardwalk Empire (for which the band won a 2012 Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack). While there are a few other bands around the country playing 1920s and 1930s jazz, swing and blues, the Nighthawks deserve most of the credit for keeping the genre alive . . . and live.
Listening to this band at Rose Hall was like traveling back in time to the days when the up-beat musical anarchy of Big Band jazz and swing took some of The Edge off coping with prohibition and then the Great Depression. Giordano & the Nighthawks and their reverential arrangements bring the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson, Luis Russell, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, King Oliver, Bennie Moten, Jimmy Lunceford, and Chick Webb back to life, while also honoring great composers, arrangers, and musicians such as Jimmy McHugh, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, Red Allen, Benny Carter, and Fats Waller. These were the musical geniuses-most Black-who were the forerunners to the orchestras of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Artie Shaw, and the other extremely popular bands of the World War II era, whose more mainstream version of jazz and swing were beloved by predominantly white audiences.
It's a shame the Rose Hall environment doesn't encourage the crowd to get up and boogey (as they do when the band plays at Sofia's), but you could feel the feet moving under the seats during Henderson's "Sugarfoot Stomp" and "Stampede" (both from the mid '20s). The Luis Russell Orchestra's version of "Red" Allen's "Singing Pretty Songs," featured a terrific trumpet lead from band veteran Jon-Erik Kellso (who had also played trumpet in jazz singer Catherine Russell's Allen Room show at the end of May). Mike Ponella was equally amazing on trumpet when the band offered the Louis Armstrong Orchestra version of Fats Waller's "Blue Turnin' Grey Over You." Giordano, who alternates between playing bass, bass saxophone, and tuba with a manic smoothness, chimed in with some nice vocals on this one.
Giordano's song selection and arrangements gave all the band members a chance to shine at some point in the show. Andy Stein's violin sang like a bird on McHugh's "Baltimore," Dan Block (who also played in Catherine Russell's band) and his alto sax were appropriately bluesy on Redmond's "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You," Mark Lopeman tooted a smooth saxophone on Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul," Jim Fryer's trombone matched Ponella's trumpet on "Blue Turnin' Grey Over You,", Dan Levinson's clarinet was a major force on Webb's "Blue Minor," Ken Salvo strummed a mean guitar and banjo and Arnie Kinsella drummed his heart out on the Dixieland Jam "Jazz Me Blues," and Peter Yarin's piano riffs took over Moten's "Oh, Eddie." As the Rose Hall show moved along, the song tempos seemed to build steadily, climaxing with the manic energy of Duke Ellington's "Cotton Stomp #2," and the finale, "Jazznocracy" (Jimmy Lunsford Orchestra), which sounded like chase music from a 1930s gangster flick. (Click Page 2 link below to continue.)