Being a working musician is no small feat. Pair that with coordinating a “big band” of 11 players, schlepping tons of equipment to each gig, and keeping 1920s and ’30s period jazz alive, and Vince Giordano has quite a task on his hands.
With his band, the Nighthawks, Brooklyn-based Giordano plays weddings, social events and fills the resident spot at the Iguana in New York City on Monday and Tuesday nights. In addition, he’s known around Hollywood as the go-to guy for period work. He’s been creating scores for Woody Allen since Zelig in 1983, and was brought in to create the soundtrack for The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the music for all five seasons of Boardwalk Empire, for which he won a Grammy. Most recently, he created the music for the Wizard of Lies, a film about Bernie Madoff to be released on HBO in May.
The highs and lows of his day-to-day existence with his band are expertly captured in a documentary called Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past by filmmakers Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson of Hudson West Productions. The film has been touring across the U.S. and internationally for the last year and got rave reviews from The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter and The Village Voice.
On March 24, Dallas will have a chance to see the film at the Texas Theatre with a Q&A by Giordano and Edwards to follow. That night, Giordano will also be playing with a local period band the Singapore Slingers fronted by Matt Toletino, who originally pitched the idea of the film coming to Dallas. It’s $15 for the whole evening, which is an “incredible bargain” for an evening of entertainment, says Edwards. “If you can’t get out to New York to see the Nighthawks live, the film is the next best thing.”
The film is so effective, enjoyable and received great reviews, in part because of the long musical sequences of Giordano and his band playing, which serve to punctuate the narrative.
“We didn’t want to make one of those music documentaries where you hear eight bars and then it’s on to the next thing,” Edwards says. “The whole point of this [was] to make something for people who were not familiar with this music [to] hear and experience enough of it to get why it’s so great.”
In fact, Edwards’ love of music led her to making the film in the first place. “I’ve known Vince for a very long time. Full disclosure, Vince played for my first wedding [in 1992]. My first [marriage] did not work out that well, but it was a fabulous party,” Edwards says with a laugh. She also performed as a singer with Giordano’s band at a handful of gigs in New York City, and Giordano invited Edwards to sing on one of the Boardwalk Empire tracks.
Edwards and her filmmaking partner, Davidson, also highlighted Giordano in a series for PBS called Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook and decided he deserved his own full-length feature. “[We thought], we’ve got to get Vince to say ‘yes’ to this before he’s too famous to talk to us,” Edwards says. “We were fortunate that he agreed to our pleas.”
Giordano has been interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air by Terri Gross, who’s a fan of his, and featured on Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. For being “famous,” he’s remarkably down-to-earth, both in our interview and on the film.
No doubt, Giordano has been so successful not only because of his skill, but also because of his dedication to the genre. He began playing big band music right out of the military, saying he was inspired in part by George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Fest, who played the old hits “note for note.” In the film, Giordano is seen talking to Wein before playing the festival.
Giordano’s reputation grew, not only as a player, but as a curator of historical musical pieces. Early on, Giordano set out to acquire as much period sheet music as possible, traveling across the U.S. to visit estate sales and theater closures, and putting out advertisements in trade magazines. By now, he’s acquired over 60,000 scores in his collection. It’s hard to imagine what that looks like, until the film shows the rows upon rows of filing cabinets — 100 total — that fill up the basements in both his homes.
“Vince has the largest privately held collection of this particular genre in the world — and it’s findable,” Edwards says. “The Library of Congress — only 10 percent of its holdings are cataloged. Vince’s is 100 percent cataloged.”
“[People ask me], ‘Why do you keep grabbing more stuff?’ What I’m doing is really rescuing it,” Giordano says over the phone in Brooklyn. “The original publishers of these tunes, almost all of them, don’t even have reference copies of their music anymore. They’re not interested or they just dispose of the stuff. They still own the rights to them, but they don’t have [a copy] and as far as band arrangements, forget it, those things went out as soon as the big bands went out and rock ’n’ roll came in. It was my mission, and I want to leave it to someone to take this over. It wouldn’t be a burden, all they’d have to do is move it. It’s all ready to go.”
Giordano devised his own cataloging system for keeping track of all of the music; he can cross-reference each piece by title, composer and year. He carries 400 pounds of sheet music to each gig — about 2,500 pieces — which is partly why his work is so arduous, and also why he’s so well-known. He can fulfill just about any request.
Because he has so much and keeps it well-organized, Edwards says the library was indispensable to licensing the music that appears in the film.
“We had to find out who owns them and what percentages. Our music clearance person would call [Vince] and ask for the name. A lot of those publishing companies don’t exist anymore. She had to trace who bought the company, what happened to the company. It was a real treasure hunt,” Edwards says.
The film tracks Giordano from 2009 to 2015, through some of the sweetest accomplishments and toughest times in his career. You see him recording the score for Boardwalk Empire and doing takes on set (he also appears in the series). Your heart breaks when the club Giordano has been playing each week closes down.
“We were there and filming when that happened. It was a total surprise for us and a total surprise to Vince,” Edwards says. “We were also filming when Boardwalk Empire happened — a huge, big, wonderful thing that happened in Vince’s life.”
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Giordano found a new resident club — the Iguana. “The Iguana is smaller but the food and booze are better,” Giordano says with a laugh. The Iguana had no music reputation or legacy to speak of, but people like Mel Brooks, Diana Krall and Michael Feinstein high tail it to the Iguana when they’re in town to see Giordano, the pair say. “Iguana gets a steady stream of celebrities,” Edwards adds.
“Vince has to be really prepared. Jazz musicians from all over the world … will show up with their instruments and want to sit in,” Edwards says. “So they’ll quick figure out something. It’s always a surprise. That’s why this band is so amazing. They’ll sightread anything.”
“I call it our rehearsal and performance all rolled into one. We gotta keep up on our toes with these big names coming,” Giordano says. “A lot more people are coming to the Iguana because of the film, even people who have seen the film from out of town. I also get a lot more emails from people wondering if they’re going to play out there by them. [There’s] a lot more awareness about what I’m doing, so I’m thankful to Amber and Dave for doing the film.”
Vince Giordano, 8 p.m. Friday, March 24, Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson Blvd., $15, thetexastheatre.com.