Film Review: Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past

Lovers of big-band music especially—but everyone, really—will enjoy this loving look at a man and his nostalgic mission.
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Just as much as the Statue of Liberty or the Chrysler Building, there are human treasures in New York as well. You know, people like Kitty Carlisle Hart, Bobby Short or Skitch Henderson, who may no longer be with us, while columnist Cindy Adams and singers Judy Collins, Barbara Cook and Marilyn Maye endure. And there’s that other essential breathing landmark of Gotham: genial, complex bandleader/musician Vince Giordano, who is celebrated in this Tin Pan Alley hosanna, directed by Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards.

For a remarkable three decades (longevity rivaled only by the Duke Ellington Orchestra), Giordano has headed up his band, The Nighthawks, and it is a joyful fact that on usually more than one night a week in New York City you can catch this awe-inspiring jack of all vintage jazz trades and his terrifically seasoned instrument-wielding cohorts vividly playing the music of his beloved 1920s to 30s.

Giordano was considered to be “weird” as a child growing up in Brooklyn, for his obsession with what schoolmates derided as “cartoon music,” familiar to them, as it was, from TV kiddie programming. Unbowed, Giordano, entranced by this sound from the age of two, when he first heard it on his grandma’s Victrola, learned to play different instruments (taught by legends like Giordano idol Paul Whiteman’s arranger Bill Challis, drummer Chauncey Morehouse and bassist Joe Tarto) and simply continued on his quest to unearth everything he could from that period, focusing on printed band arrangements which now fill his two adjacent houses in Brooklyn, stuffed to the attic with jazz memorabilia and file cabinets, chock-a-block with over 60,0000 scrupulously collected alphabetized music scores for each instrument in the band.

And it’s these very arrangements that Giordano distributes to his band members before every gypsy gig, from private weddings to Lincoln Center (he’s a star of their popular “Midsummer Swing” dance series) to the set of “Boardwalk Empire,” where Martin Scorsese had the good sense to hire him for projects such as that and The Aviator, their first collaboration.

Many of these impressively versatile and devoted players, some of the greatest jazz instrumentalists of our time, are interviewed in Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past, and their humorously honest words, whether in rapt admiration for the music they play or detailing Giordano’s sometimes spiky personality, help to make this lovingly assembled tribute, wholly revealing of the actual life of a hired player, one of the best music docs ever.

Spiky? Small wonder. As more than one observer notes, being a bandleader can be a thankless load of nonstop drudgery, having to be responsible for each and every band member, as well as the myriad concerns regarding transporting them all over the world to bookings, setting up concert venues, publicizing the gigs and trying to stay financially afloat. The band’s longtime home was a restaurant, Sofia’s, in the Edison Hotel, before a $2 million rent increase shuttered them forever, but happily, they have found an even better new home at the Cafe Iguana. We see Giordano and his ever-game partner, Carol Hughes (who mentions his craziness when she met him, which only increased with the passing years), stoically lugging instruments onto buses, and the truth is brought home once again that there’s actually very little real glamour in show business.

But when the lights hit this band, making such joyful, irresistible and deeply nostalgic noises—which form one of the deepest strains of our collected history—and Giordano seems to almost swoon with pure pleasure as he sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” in his thin but charmingly authentic voice, there cannot be a doubt as to whether all the endless sweat and worry is worth it.

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