Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2016



The Nighthawks
September 08, 2016



When my son John and his family invited me to visit them in New York, they asked me if there was anything specific I would like to do. My reply was that I would like to see and hear Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. I had already confirmed that they played Monday and Tuesday nights at the Iguana Restaurant.

I had seen Giordano and some of the men in his band at jazz festivals and have several of the Nighthawks’ records. I was also familiar with their involvement in movies – several Woody Allen films including his most recent one (Café Society), “The Aviator”, and “Finding Forrester” – as well as in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”.

When I got to New York and we began to investigate the possibility of seeing the Nighthawks I researched the Iguana Restaurant and was discouraged to learn that it is a well-known Tex-Mex restaurant, hardly the normal place for a jazz band that plays music from the ‘20s and ‘30s. Nonetheless we made reservations and showed up there fifteen minutes before the 8:00 pm show time.

My concerns were aggravated when we walked into the restaurant – it certainly was not the venue I associate with classic jazz. We were directed up a staircase to the second floor, and suddenly everything looked better. A small dance floor, a reasonably large bandstand with a few tuxedoed musicians shuffling around, and busy waiters threading their way between tables crowded with enthusiastic fans.

Our table was down front, very close to the musicians. We placed our orders and then began to inspect the musicians. Giordano leads the band while providing a remarkably effective bass line – sometimes with an upright string bass, sometimes with a tuba, and sometimes with a bass saxophone. Keeping track of what he is playing is worth the price of admission alone.

I recognized Andy Stein, another remarkable musician who plays baritone saxophone when he isn’t playing violin (jazz fiddle?). Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and Saxophonist/clarinetist Dan Levinson were also familiar faces, from Allegheny Jazz Society events I have attended. The rest of the band was made up of reed players Mark Lopeman and Dennis Joseph, trumpeter Mike Ponella, Ken Salvo on guitar and banjo, trombonist Jim Fryer, percussionist Paul Wells, and pianist Simon Mulligan.

We had just started on our meal and I was beginning to feel that this was going to work out well when drummer Wells hit the downbeat for the first song and suddenly we were back in 1926! I have always been a fan of time travel, and tonight I had achieved it. Absolutely everything was exactly as I had imagined it.

I thought Vince announced the first selection as “90 in the Shade”. Later research indicated that was the name of a 1915 Broadway musical by Jerome Kern that, surprisingly, did not include a song with that title. Not to worry – it was wonderful, as were all the two dozen songs that followed it in the three set performance.

Asking me which songs I liked best is akin to asking me which grandchild I love most – they were all magnificent. Maybe “Ring Dem Bells” from the first set, “Isn’t It Romantic” from the second, and “You’re the Cream in my Coffee” from the third.

Singer Carol Woods, fresh from a tour with “Chicago”, came up from the audience and sang “Orange Colored Sky” before belting “Blues in the Night”. Another audience celebrity was society pianist and ‘20s music historian Peter Mintun. He sat in with the band and played “Riding High”.

And, finally, a gentleman whose introduction I missed grabbed the microphone and sang “Let Yourself Go”. If there was any residual question about time travel, this man dispelled it. He was dressed completely in white, with a red rosebud in his boutonniere. I am sure that, as soon as the set was over, he hurried outside to get into Jay Gatsby’s convertible with Nick and Daisy, and then to speed off to West Egg.

Margaret Whiting’s daughter Deborah was also in the audience. In honor of her grandfather the band performed an outstanding version of his “True Blue Lou”.

The current Nighthawks take their name from the Coon-Sanders band, an extremely popular jazz band that performed from 1919 to 1932. Formed in Kansas City by drummer Carleton Coon and pianist Joe Sanders, the Nighthawks were the first jazz band to achieve popularity with late night (midnight to 1:00 am) clear channel radio broadcasts. They later moved to Chicago and New York and became famously nationally.

I remember my father talking about the Coon-Sanders band. I assume he was aware of them because of their radio broadcasts and records, but it would be nice to think that he and my mother saw them perform in a nightclub in New York when they honeymooned there n 1930. The only thing I know about that trip is that my mother said they went to lots of baseball games.

I have listened to a number of original Nighthawks records and can attest to the fact that Giordano’s band is an appropriate descendant of them. I think Coon-Sanders had similar instrumentation, ten pieces lacking only the fourth reed/violin player Giordano’s band uses. Their bass player was not as versatile as Vince – he only played tuba.

John’s comment was “This is terrific. Why did they quit playing jazz this way?” My response was that the evolution of jazz followed the same trajectory as other art forms. The early practitioners took a couple of concepts – syncopation and improvisation – and experimented with them until they perfected a simple, elegant approach to playing music, an approach some of us call “classic” or “traditional” jazz.

Then performers began to incorporate variations, primarily in harmony and rhythm, and developed “Swing”, “Bebop”, “Progressive Jazz”, “Cool Jazz”, and a dozen others. I enjoy all of them, but none as much as traditional.

The three hours passed rapidly, suddenly it was 11:00 and Vince announced their final selection. I can’t recall any other musical event I have experienced in recent years that was nearly as enjoyable as this evening. I hope we can re-engage our time machine again soon and travel back to the “Roaring Twenties”.

Coming attractions – I will moderate a series of monthly workshops on specific topics in Bridgeville area history at the History Center beginning at 7:00 pm Tuesday, September 13, 2016. The first one will deal with the J B Higbee Glass Company.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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