Amber Edwards and Dave Davidson/Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past

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 fifty 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, Cafe Society, and 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, codirectors 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. Availability: Opens January 13, New York City, Cinema Village. Click here for the trailer and a sample of Vince’s band. Click here for theater listings. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.


DT: 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?

AE: Vince would agree a thousand percent, and he often says that nobody complains that Mozart is old fashioned.

DD: 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 schlepp 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 earbuds 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 codirected 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 theater 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.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017



Keep On Keepin’ On/Alan Hicks

It’s hard to imagine a film more filled with reverence, devotion, and inspiration than Keep on Keepin’ On, a tribute to jazz legend Clark Terry lovingly crafted by Alan Hicks, one of Terry’s former students (a set that includes Quincy Jones and Miles Davis).  When the master started to lose his sight, Hicks introduced him to a young blind pianist named Justin Kauflin.  The bond between these two malsighted musicians was instant and profound, and we are grateful to Hicks for catching it on film. For his efforts, Hicks won Best New Documentary Director at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film received its world premiere with a post-screening concert featuring Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, and Justin Kauflin.  Produced by Quincy Jones.  •Availability:  See RADiUS-TWC. Thanks to Susan Engel, PMK-BNC for arranging this interview.


DT: How did you meet Clark Terry?


AH:  When I was eighteen I moved from Australia to Brooklyn to study jazz.  I got into William Paterson University, and I was there for a year, but I was young and hadn’t planned things well. It was pretty tough, and I was going to move back to Australia when the pianist James Williams, who was a teacher there, said, “Before you move back I’ve got you on the door of this gig.”  It was a gig at the Blue Note with the Oscar Peterson Trio.


DT:  Not bad.


AH:  I couldn’t even afford to go into the city, and he walked me into the gig and sat me down between Clark Terry and Gwen Terry. They turned around and said, “You must be Al.”  It blew my mind, because Clark was one of my idols growing up.  My dad bought me the Quincy Jones autobiography for my flight from Australia to America, and in that autobiography Quincy wrote a chapter about Clark, and I remember going, That is so cool.


DT:  You’re a drummer.


AH:  I’m a drummer.  So by fate I met Clark, and he said, “I heard you were planning on moving back to Australia.  I heard that you can play, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to move.”  Then he said, “I’m having dinner next week.” That was past the date where I was going to fly, but I called my mom and said, “Cancel my flight home.  Clark Terry invited me over for dinner.” We had dinner.  He said, come next week. Another dinner. I came the next week, and the week after, then he said, Bring your sticks, so I brought my sticks, and it turned into every other day and then I was just over there every other day for years.  Then I joined his band and we traveled a lot, too.  Me and Clark spent a lot of great time together, and it started as a friendship before anything else.


DT:  But a friendship based on music.


AH:  James Williams obviously thought I shouldn’t go home, and he talked to Clark and Gwen. I didn’t know that compassionate side of Clark Terry, I just knew him as this master trumpet player.  Clark and I became really, really good friends, and during the time when Clark was starting to lose his sight, Justin Kauflin happened to start coming to the university. Clark was fretting—he was having a hard time adjusting, and he was getting real nervous about everything getting dimmer, so one night I said to Clark, “There’s this young blind kid who just started at the college.  Maybe I could bring him along.”  Clark said yeah, so I brought him over, and it was amazing to see those two connect.  Justin lost his sight when he was eleven, and he explained to Clark that it wan’t so bad losing your sight. He said it doesn’t go pitch black, that your brain fills in the gaps, and it really calmed Clark down.  Chilled him out.  So they started a beautiful relationship.  Years later I had moved back to Australia, and an Australian documentary channel wanted to do a story about my relationship with Clark.


DT:  So you were approached by someone else about making a film?


AH: Yeah, and then they pulled the funding.  I was bummed.  One day I was surfing with my high school mate, a bloke called Adam Hart, and I said, “Mate, they pulled the pin. They’re not going to go ahead with it, and it’s a bugger of a thing.” He happened to be a cameraman, and he just said, “Mate, I reckon we can save up and do it ourselves.  Let’s just go for it.”  So we saved up for a year and bought our airfares and some equipment and just started shooting.  I wasn’t in the story—it was just about Clark.  I’d never done anything in film before, and Adam had worked on surf films, so we both had very little experience, and we just started shooting.  Once we started shooting we realized how strong Justin and Clark’s relationship still is.  Justin would be down at Clark’s house in Arkansas all the time.  We asked Justin if we could start shooting with him too and he was like, Yeah, no worries.  Because we were all such good mates it was never a problem.


DT:  I assume that the editing became critical to really shaping and making the film.


AH:  Yes.  Us being naive worked in our favor, because we just shot and shot and shot and shot.  I can’t even tell you how many hard drives we filled up.  There’s 350 hours of vérité footage, then there’s 100 hours of archival footage. We watched every minute of it and then we started editing.  I had a real good idea of how the story should go cause I was there for the whole thing, but it wasn’t until we got to editing that we could really start honing in.


DT:  When did Quincy Jones come on?


AH:  Quincy literally walked into the film.  Justin was going back down to Clark’s place in Arkansas, and we were going to shoot them for three weeks.  While we were there, Clark and Gwen got this call saying Quincy and Snoop Dogg wanted to come down and record this album that they’d been planning on doing for years, with Clark doing his mumbles and Snoop Dogg rapping, because Snoop’s a huge fan of Clark’s. Snoop sprained his ankle playing basketball with his son and couldn’t come down, so the recording session was canceled, and it ended up being Quincy just coming to hang out with his teacher. Then he got to hear Justin play and loved it. We were still following Clark and Justin the whole way, and as Quincy took Justin on, that just grew.  But it wasn’t until we got into postproduction that Quincy was able to really come on board and help us, because we’ve got more music in our film than I think almost any other documentary.  There’s fifty-two music cues, then score by two composers.  Everything needed to be cleared, and we’re an independent film.  There’s music from Miles Davis, from Duke Ellington.  With Quincy’s relationship with all these people, he was really able to help us keep that music  in the film.


DT:  Let’s talk about Clark.  Can you pinpoint why his teaching is so extraordinary?


AH:  With Clark it’s not like you walk in and it’s time to teach, the lesson’s started, the hour’s up.  The moment you walk into his house, you’re studying.  It’s every single aspect about the guy. Everything he says is a piece of wisdom, even if you’re just eating dinner.  If you sit down and have a meal with Clark, he’ll tell you all these old jokes, and then you finish the meal and he’ll start talking about Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown…there’s jazz history lessons all over the place.  You’re always studying.  If I was driving to a gig with him, in the car he’d be singing rhythms and telling me about these old drummers and these little things you can do.  It’s a hundred percent of the time.  That’s what’s interesting about Clark, and the way that he leads by example as well.  I’ve seen him handle some really tough situations, and that’s helped me navigate through a lot of tough situations of my own, because I think, How would Clark handle that?  So it’s not conventional, as far as you’ve got your lesson time. He’s never charged a student in his life, either.  He’s not trying to charge kids to learn about jazz.  He just wants to get it out.


DT:  Can you talk about the dynamics of the small ensemble group Clark formed at William Paterson University?  It sounds like a life-changing experience.


AH:  It started off with just a few students jamming at his house.  That went on for a long time, then the university invited him to start an ensemble at the school, and Clark would select students to be in this ensemble.  For years, every Monday night we’d rehearse with Clark; the rehearsals would be four, five, six hours, and Clark would always be the last one standing.  It was crazy.  That became a really cool group of kids, and then we started working with Clark outside the school.  The craziest bit is we’d do these huge sessions with Clark every Monday night, and then he’d say, “Oh Gwen’s cooked up a huge feed, you guys should come over.” We’d go over and hang out and eat and learn some more jazz history, and then we’d have jam sessions after that in his living room.  That went on for years.  We’d be falling asleep in jazz history class the next day because we were up all night getting the jazz history from Clark, but it was just this really special time.  We’re all so lucky to have been in that guy’s presence, and especially at that part of his career, too, cause he was still really strong on the horn.


DT:  At the Q&A after the Tribeca premiere, someone asked about the process of getting your own sound.  As a musician, how do you describe the process of getting your own sound, which was so important to Justin?  I mean, it’s important to every musician, but that was really the crux of Justin’s issue in the film.


AH:  Being a musician myself, I struggle with the same thing.  That’s what made it a comfortable thing for me to approach in the film, because I get it.  Everybody is looking to find their own voice or own sound, but Justin is a very special case because he’s so talented and doesn’t see it.  The thing with Clark…Herbie Hancock says it in the movie:  Clark doesn’t want you to copy him, he wants you to find your own sound.  I’ve been trying just as hard as I can with Clark to excel on my instrument, but transitioning into doing this film, so much of the advice that Clark has given me musically has been able to transcend to this process—that whole thing of trusting what you’re doing and just working really hard.  And repetition, especially with the editing process. Doing those fifteen-hour editing sessions, I would always think about Clark: with the small ensemble, we would do one phrase for two hours, over and over and over.  I feel lucky that I had that training with Clark, because I was able to apply those methods to making a film and navigating through something I’ve never done and didn’t know how to do.  So in a sense he’s helped me find the possibility of a voice in another medium.


DT:  When you were doing the same phrase for two hours, would Clark tell you what he was looking for?


AH:  He’s very specific, and he wouldn’t move on until we’d nailed it.


DT:  What would he say?  The timing is off here, or—


AH:  He’d sing rhythms and melodies, and the way it’s phrased is so important.  In the film you hear that doodle system.  It’s real subtle but superimportant, and he would make the rhythm section play a hundred percent of the time.  He’d just tell us to play softer while he worked with the horn sections, and then he’d sing rhythms to us.  It taught me to not be afraid to keep going until it’s right and pushing the people around you to make sure they do it right.  I was always a bit tentative about making an editor work as hard as they can, but through Clark doing that to us, I felt confident and comfortable pushing people to work harder.  And that’s how this whole thing has been, pushing people with good intention: that’s something Clark has done his whole life.


DT:  What does he say to someone to encourage them to bring out their own voice?


AH:  He simplifies everything.  He’ll slow down a phrase, and then repeat it for an hour.  It makes it clearer because it’s so simple.  He’s got a quote, I think it’s “Imitation, assimilation, and that leads to innovation”—that’s what Clark would always tell us.  You’ve got to imitate the people around you and then start to see where you fit. Then you can start to innovate.  It’s all about the basics with his teaching, but then he could teach anyone, and he has.


DT: For readers who don’t know Clark Terry—he’s not a household name the way Duke Ellington is—why is he so important in the history of jazz?


AH:  He’s at the root of the tree.  He’s right at the beginning.  I’m not a historian, so you’re better off having an historian answer that, but from what I know about Clark’s life, it’s his influence on these major people in music, like Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, and playing through the swing era into the bebop era, and moving forward.  Musically he’s a huge influence.  Christian McBride says in the film that almost every major jazz musician in our time has learned something from Clark Terry, whether it’s just listening to his records or learning from him personally.  But one of my theories about the reason he’s not a household name like Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis is that he didn’t pursue that.  He was always focused on mastering his craft and also giving it back to the kids.  From the beginning he was like that, so he just didn’t have time to be self-promoting.  He was busy promoting the artform.  And I think in the film something that comes across is how selfless he is.  He’s always thinking about other people.  Even when he’s having those life-or-death moments, he’s thinking about the people he wants to help.


DT:  Last question:  Are you going to continue playing drums, and are you going to keep making films?


AH:  I’ll definitely continue playing drums.  Clark’s been on my case about it, saying that once you get finished with this, you’ve got some work to do.  But I’ve really enjoyed this process. It was a total discovery that we were able to make a movie.  I didn’t know.  With me and Adam it’s just two blokes from Australia who love surfing and playing music, so it’s a total discovery for me.  But I’d really love to get into the narrative world of directing.  It really intrigues me.  I know in jazz you can study with the masters, and I was fortunate to study with Clark.


DT:  I’m sure not everyone can study with the masters.


AH:  Maybe, but I’d love to study with a master director.  I’d love to really get into the process and learn a lot more about it.  I have a lot of ideas swimming around at the moment, but we’ll see how we go.


DT:  You’re hooked.


AH:  I think I am.


Copyright © Director Talk 2014