As he began developing the pilot for “Boardwalk Empire,” an HBO series about Atlantic City mobsters in the Roaring ’20s, creator Terence Winter was stumped when it came to designing a period soundtrack. All he heard in his head were endless tape loops of the Charleston and crazy crooners with megaphones. The music seemed boring.
Then he met Vince Giordano.
A passionate bandleader, Giordano is Hollywood’s go-to-guy for hot jazz tracks from the 1920s and 1930s. He’s worked on period fare with such directors as Woody Allen (“Café Society”), Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator”), Todd Haynes (“Carol”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“Cotton Club”). So when HBO hired him to collaborate with Winter, his impact was profound.
“Vince is a walking encyclopedia for this music, and he recorded mind-blowing material for us,” said Winter, noting that “Boardwalk Empire’s” first soundtrack album won a Grammy. “But he’s not just an expert. He’s an amazing performer who keeps this music alive, and he deserves recognition for his work.”
That recognition may finally come with “Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past,” an illuminating documentary by Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson that takes viewers deep into Giordano’s musical world. Packed with sizzling performances, the First Run Features film, which opens in Los Angeles on Firday, tells the story of Giordano’s struggle to carry the torch for a vanishing musical era.
In the breakout hit and multiple-Oscar-winning “La La Land,” a Hollywood version of the jazz scene showed Ryan Gosling’s pianist attracted to the pure sounds of the past — before he succumbs to the lure of more pop-oriented music and becomes a star. It’s not nearly as glamorous in Giordano’s world.
Beyond soundtracks, Giordano, 65, spends most of his time managing, financing and performing with the Nighthawks, a New York jazz band he formed in 1976. Aided mainly by his devoted companion, Carol Hughes, he’s forever schlepping hundreds of pounds of vintage instruments and equipment in a van from one gig to the next. He doesn’t have an agent, manager or publicist, not even a roadie.
The stress is palpable, and Giordano, a modest, self-effacing man, fights to keep it in perspective. “A day without chest pains,” he says, “is a day without sunshine.”
Night after night the band rips through tunes by George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and others, dazzling audiences with tightly synchronized performances. Led by Giordano on bass sax, double bass and tuba, the tuxedo-clad Nighthawks blow the roof off with arrangements culled from his massive home library of more than 60,000 scores.
“It’s exhilarating to see them live,” says Fred Newman, an actor and sound effects artist on “Prairie Home Companion” who recently caught the band here at Iguana NYC, where they play Monday and Tuesday nights. “You’re hearing music exactly as it sounded 100 years ago, and everything in the room is moving. People are dancing, knuckles are rapping on tables, ice is shaking in glasses. It’s a wall of sound. Pure joy.”
But trouble is never far away. While the film captures Giordano in magically serene moments, belting out showstoppers like “Shake That Thing,” it also shows him battling to keep the band together.
Edwards, who previously helmed a PBS series about Michael Feinstein and the Great American Songbook, said these alternating emotions frame the movie. One moment Giordano is basking in a standing ovation. Minutes later he tells band members that a club where they played for years is closing, leaving their future uncertain.
“It’s astonishing how much struggle there is before he even gets to the downbeat,” Edwards said. “Vince has 10 kids. They’re called a band, and managing them is like herding cats. His life is a roller coaster.”
So what drives a man to do this?
Born in Brooklyn, Giordano got hooked on music of the 1920s at an early age, when he discovered 78 rpm recordings and his grandmother’s Victrola. He became a voracious record collector and sought out mentors, like Bill Challis, who arranged music for the legendary Paul Whiteman band.
Musically precocious, he learned to play several instruments and began performing in clubs. A chance meeting with Dick Hyman, the renowned jazz pianist, brought him into soundtrack sessions for Woody Allen films like “Zelig” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”
Soon his passion became a mission. Besides club dates, the Nighthawks have played the Newport Jazz Festival, “Prairie Home Companion” and special concerts, like a rousing salute to “Rhapsody in Blue” on its 90th anniversary. Giordano has been at it for more than 40 years, and friends are effusive in their praise.
In email interviews, Allen calls him “a master at period jazz who has been invaluable to me.” Mel Brooks, a huge fan, said: “Any time I’m in New York on a Monday or Tuesday night, I will unfailingly head to wherever Vince and his Nighthawks are performing.” And Scorsese said: “He understands what I want and need — he interprets the music to make it work within the world of my picture, and that world is then enriched.”
For Giordano, there’s clearly a future in the past. But also a burden. He dreams of working at a club where he can store equipment, instead of shuttling from one gig to the next. And, just maybe, catch his breath.
“I’m always hoping for a Mr. or Ms. Right to come along and help us,” he says. “This life can wear you down. But win or lose, we do it for love.”