'This Is My Music': New doc captures the joyful mission of New York bandleader Vince Giordano
In the mid-1950s, five-year-old Vince Giordano had a “Eureka, I’ve found it!” moment. Noticing an old carton in his grandmother’s parlor one day, he asked her to open it. Inside was an old Victrola with a collection of records from the 1920s. They set up the Victrola. Then, under her supervision, young Vince cranked up the machine and very, very carefully lay one of the precious disks on the turntable. Scratchy tunes began to pour out of the megaphone, and Vince’s eyes grew huge. “This is my music,” the future bandleader declared.
Over the next 50 years, Vince would spend every waking moment listening, collecting, recording, studying, performing, and conducting over 60,000 jazz tunes from the ’20s and ’30s. He created a band, The Nighthawks, who would play the Newport Jazz Festival, New York City’s Town Hall, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. They recorded the soundtracks for The Good Shepherd, Away We Go and Public Enemies. You’ve seen them in such films as The Aviator and Cafe Society and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” And, if you’re lucky enough to live in New York, you can catch them every Monday and Tuesday night at Club Iguana. In Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past, co-directors Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson capture The Nighthawks as they’re guided by Vince’s devotion to authenticity of sound and performance, his mission to spread this music, his expansive generosity, and his utter joy when the band begins to play.
Edwards and Davidson recently spoke with Director Talk.
Director Talk: I was grateful that your film did not share a point of view I find very narrow. People like to stress the fact that the music The Nighthawks play was written about ninety years ago. They insist on calling it “vintage” or some other alienating term, while they would never refer to Beethoven or Mozart in those terms. Isn’t a musical experience simply a musical experience?
Amber Edwards: Vince would agree a thousand percent, and he often says that nobody complains that Mozart is old-fashioned.
Dave Davidson: Isn’t it ironic that jazz is sometimes referred to as America’s classical music? Yet the older forms within jazz are not given the reverence that the classical music canon gets.
DT: I liked the way you covered the band while they were playing. How did you shoot the music-making?
DD: When people make performance-based films in this day and age, they tend to roll out fifty cameras, and there’s one flying around in the air and another one on a dolly in front, but because Vince so embodies the personality of this music, we basically shot with three cameras most of the time. I had good guys working with me, and that freed me up to really stay with Vince and keep it intimate, because his expressions, as well as his virtuosity, tell the story. The joy just oozes out of him when he’s in this rapturous mode; we wanted to honestly present the music but with Vince as that vehicle. As you can see, there’s a lot of really close-up coverage of Vince while he’s singing and playing.
AE: We had to learn a new style of capturing this, because so much of the action is someone popping up for a solo, playing and sitting down, then someone somewhere else pops up. There’s this constant kind of choreography. The guys are just sitting in the same spaces, but there’s so much action. When we had a second or third or even fourth cameraperson there, their instinct was to go where the action was, and we had to really train everyone to just stay where they were. We’d tell them, “You’re on the reeds. Just stay there and don’t worry, because something will happen.”
DD: You can probably tell we shot in a variety of venues. Sometimes we could really spread out and have a lot of elbow room, but Iguana in particular is pretty cramped, as you know. There’s a little booth up to the left of the bandstand, and I would be perched up there, wearing black and trying to be invisible, trying to get a picture of anything besides other camerapeople, who you don’t want in the frame.
DT: It was probably complicated by the fact that you didn’t know when the solos were popping up, since Vince plays different pieces for every show.
AE: That’s exactly it. It became this geographic way of telling the camerapeople, “Just be where you are and things will happen.” Vince knows what he’s going to play…sometimes…but we really just had to be ready to roll with anything. We probably filmed two to three hundred songs, because we shot entire performances.
DT: You’ve worked on a lot of music-related films. Was this one different from other ones you’ve done?
AE: It’s quite different from Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook because that was like a road trip and this is really just one character’s story; it was always through Vince that all this was happening. We weren’t trying to be informational in the way that a PBS program has this obligation to be educational. I mean, this is educational, but it’s a narrative and a character hung on a clothesline of this fantastic music.
DD: In a standard documentary, whether it’s performance or art in general, they tend to roll in a lot of “experts.” You’ve got somebody with the library books behind them so there’s more gravitas and they’re able to quote chapter and verse from the book that they wrote about the topic and somehow that ennobles the topic. We went the other way—we felt that the experts were in the band. We wanted to keep it in the family. There’s nobody more expert in this music than these guys anyway, but it allowed us to keep everything very close to home and very intimate as the guys in the band talked about Vince, talked about playing with each other.
DT: When you think of Vince and The Nighthawks, what’s the first thing that springs to mind?
AE: Joy. I never get tired of watching the band play and hearing the music, because when you look around the room, you see smiles on everyone’s faces, like they’ve just escaped from whatever it is that’s weighing them down and they’re filled with this intoxicating ebullience.
DD: I would say the power to move, and I mean that in a couple of different ways. First of all, we’re emotionally moved by the music, but that kind of music also makes people physically move. It’s great dance music. This music does come from another era, but it’s drawing a larger and larger audience through Vince because some of the woes and headaches and tragedies of the generations of the ’20s and ’30s are being revisited by this generation. We need this kind of music now to turn to, to be able to elevate our spirits and get us going again.
AE: One of the other things I love so much about Vince and how he’s kept this music alive is that it’s so multigenerational.
DT: I feel there’s something very profound and very deep going on in what Vince is doing. When you see the film and when you see Vince perform live, you understand that he’s not just making music; he’s creating a sense of community. His generosity and his sharing open up a sort of avenue of collective expression.
DD: It’s true, and so much of that is personalized. Think of how close to the precipice this music has been. On Vince’s worst day, when he doesn’t want to get out of bed, and schlep the instruments from place to place, and run after a rare piece of sheet music, he does it because he’s the person who has to carry that load. He’s so emotionally bound up in the music and so dedicated to spreading the word that it’s really a calling.
AE: He says, “It’s my religion.”
DT: I feel he’s spreading more than the music. He’s enabling us to have a collective experience.
AE: This is social music. It’s not meant to be listened to with ear buds in your own little bubble. This is music where you talk to people, you drink, you dance, you enjoy it together. There’s so much interaction with Vince and the audience when he calls out requests, when he makes little jokes. It’s that live-ness that you’re talking about when you say “community.” It’s like a big embrace when you’re in Vince’s space.
DT: You capture that beautifully in the film.
DD: Vince’s generosity of spirit makes it happen. I think the film is an honest reflection of what’s going on at the core of the music, but because he’s so dedicated to wanting it to live on, he just opens his arms and has people coming up and sitting in on a song. There’s an A line of dancers who are kind of camp followers—they just want to be at his gigs—and you literally think they’re part of the show. You think they’ve worked the numbers out, but they’re just that good, and the symbiotic relationship between their body movement and the music also creates this sense of community. They’re all part of the show.
DT: Vince has played in a number of films, including Carol, Cotton Club, Finding Forrester. In your film, you included a fabulous sequence of Vince and David Johansen making a recording for “Boardwalk Empire,” but I was struck by the fact that you didn’t include clips of those other films in yours. Was that an aesthetic or a financial decision, or did it just never come up?
DD: It was the one that was free! It was a recording session for “Boardwalk Empire,” so we thought that the sequence from that show would stand for all of them.
AE: It was also something where you could connect the process to the product.
DT: David Johansen was having so much trouble with the music, and you really felt for him.
DD: It was an all-day session. We did a different recording session with Stephen DeRosa, who played Eddie Cantor. He did an absolutely stunning rendition of a song, and it went flawlessly.
AE: He literally did it in one take.
DD: But it wasn’t good cinema! With David Johansen, it was drama. Is he going to get it right this time? Next time? You really see how the sausage is made. It just turned out to be a better scene, so it was easy to let go of the session with Stephen DeRosa even though great music was being made.
DT: Making a movie like this is a tremendous investment of time and energy with little promise of big financial rewards. Why invest the time and energy to tell this particular story?
DD: Just as Vince is compelled to keep this music alive, we tend to gravitate toward subjects that fall into the category of cultural retrieval—things that might be lost, things that might be forgotten. As happy an ending as our film has, when we started Vince was struggling to keep this music alive, and we wanted to be part of the process. We were lucky that during the curve of production, Vince’s popularity kicked in and picked up, but we love the idea of being able to grab a unique story that not only wouldn’t be told but might disappear if it wasn’t documented. Those are the kinds of stories that we’re really compelled to do.
AE: We’ve both known Vince for a very long time. For years we’ve been saying, “We’ve got to do something on Vince.” Of all the subjects I’ve worked on, he is the most unfiltered. It must be very strange to have a documentary made about yourself, but he would just be himself, and I think that comes across…he is what you see. It’s unvarnished. He had a meltdown without worrying about the fact that he was being recorded. He was just completely real.
DT: You co-directed the film. How did that work? What were the advantages? What were the disadvantages?
DD: When you’re directing and producing a film, you have to be in many different places at the same time. That’s tough on a person after a while, so be able to tag team was a big relief. If I was shooting something, Amber put her producer hat on and set up the next scene. She’s the editor; once things were in the can, she’d begin crafting those scenes. I’d come in regularly, and we’d talk about it. It’s a good symbiotic relationship where you’ve got another set of eyes and ears, you’ve got another opinion right there, there’s somebody who knows as much about the topic as you do. Having that ongoing dialogue, everybody wins.
AE: Dave is the director of photography, so he’s making the pictures, while I’m chopping them up. There’s a very nice thing about having that separation. For example, Dave doesn’t know and doesn’t care how long it took me to cut a particular scene. The only question is whether it’s working. I can’t say, “We have to use it because I spent six weeks cutting it.” If it’s not good enough, too bad. It’s out. I guess you could use the phrase creative conflict. It’s very stimulating to always have to fight for your work, and to argue over this, not that, or that, not this. It makes you sharper when you have to really explain why something should be a certain way. We don’t have too many serious arguments, because in the end one of us will say, “Yes, that’s right, that’s the way to go.”
DD:And the material recontextualizes itself. As it goes into editing, throwaway scenes you didn’t think were important a while back suddenly, because of the needs of the story, become amplified. It’s like, Wow, we’re really glad we caught that. That’s the beauty of documentary. It’s the cinema of discovery and revelation. Most people think that’s something the audience goes through—they discover, and things are revealed to them. No. It’s the journey that the filmmakers go on. We’re finding things all the time—things that get a new sense of importance, things we discover as we work the material. And that makes it fun. That’s why we like to do documentaries as opposed to fiction films.
AE: Sometimes Dave would say, “We need some kind of transition here. Do we have that somewhere?” We could go back and look for it, because we transcribe and log everything, including all the off-camera audio, which sometimes really comes to the rescue. If the camera is elsewhere, or not in place yet, but Vince has his wireless mic on, that’s all wonderful stuff to be harvested.
DT: Your recent work has been for PBS, but you did this film completely on your own. How did that feel?
DD: Ironically, most of the stuff we did for PBS was on our own too. We weren’t signed on to a particular series that had funding. We would negotiate with PBS, but we funded the films ourselves. The big difference with this film is that we didn’t have the time constraints that PBS would require. A PBS hour is 56:42, something like that. So even though we thought we had better, longer films, we had to shoehorn them into that format. And here, where people are going to sit in the theatre and not walk out till the credits roll, you have much more flexibility to go into more nuance, to make the film a little bit better. This one is ninety minutes. It’s the first time we ventured over an hour. We were in strange territory.
AE: In this case, we weren’t sitting there with a suit picking through things. I remember at one point we had to blur a shot of a Windex bottle because PBS’s product placement watchdog said, “Hey, you can’t use that.” When we met Seymour Wishman at First Run Features, it was the most thrilling thing in the world to hear him say, “I love your film.” Not I love your film, let’s talk about how to change it. It was “I love your film.” Period.
Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past is currently playing at New York City’s Cinema Village. Click here for the trailer and a sample of Vince’s band. Click here for theatre listings. The author thanks Kelly Hargraves of First Run Features for arranging the interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017