Ken Salvo, the stalwart banjoist and guitarist of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks and many other groups — in Chicago, New York, and Florida — left us this year. I didn’t get to speak with him, but his joy in playing and his steady rhythmic pulse were evident whenever I saw the Nighthawks. And musicians I’ve spoken about Ken to recall his kindnesses off the bandstand: he went out of his way to help them, to rescue them whenever he could.
He was well-liked and well-admired, so I’ve asked people who knew him to recall him for you. I’ve always thought that the measure of a life well-lived is the way people miss someone when they’re gone: Ken lived beautifully.
Clarinetist JOE LICARI:
I was shocked to hear of Ken’s passing as well as that of his wife Sandy just two weeks prior. Over many years I have played hundreds of gigs together. He was a great musician and entertainer and would always greet you with a smile. He was a sweet kind man and gentleman. I feel blessed to have known him on the bandstand and on recordings. Rest in peace, dear friend.
Trumpeter MICHAEL PONELLA:
A few years back there was the intense wind and snow storm late in October. The Nighthawks were performing a Halloween party near Hartford, Connecticut for that evening. Ken met me at my house in New York and drove from there. On the way we encountered stop and go traffic, high winds, blinding snow, accident slowdowns, and crazy drivers that Ken was yelling to in the car. We made it to the gig amazingly, but a few minutes late. The party was a success, but Ken was exhausted from all the travel, and excitement. Luckily that night a local hotel was provided, and Ken had me drive his car the rest of the way while he rested. Even after a hard/tiring time traveling Ken would still perform his 100% on stage. One more: Every time the Nighthawks would perform at Town Hall in NYC, Ken would always rise to the occasion. He enjoyed playing there as well. I will probably remember him most from those concerts, smiling, and playing faster than he ever played before.
Banjoist / vocalist CYNTHIA SAYER:
Ken knew how much I admired his plectrum Epiphone guitar because we had a running joke from me teasing him about it for years. And I knew how much he loved it too, so when he called me from Florida to offer to actually sell it to me, I was alarmed – though I was aware of health issues going on, I also knew he could keep playing, so why did he think he wouldn’t use it anymore? He talked about his local gigs and essentially said that he has faced that he’s now finished with the guitar, and it was time to pass it on to me. And well aware of the difficulties for all musicians during the pandemic, he also offered me generous terms. I accepted his offer with both deep appreciation and a heavy heart.
He knew I’d be coming to Florida soon (last June, during that small time window when we thought things were starting to return to normal, finally visiting our elderly moms there for the first time since pre-pandemic – Ken and Sandy lived close by) so he wanted to take advantage of the visit for me to possibly get the guitar. So while in Florida, we visited, jammed some (I posted a video or two of our jamming on Facebook), and I ended up taking the guitar back with me to NYC. I’m sooooo very grateful that I happened to have this last visit with him!!
I don’t remember when or where we first met, but I figure we’d known each other for most of my adulthood. A nice person and a fine player.
Bassist / tubaist / vocalist BRIAN NALEPKA:
Ken Salvo was a good friend and musical buddy for many years. He was not flashy and didn’t play “busy” solos. He kept good solid time and had that rare talent of making any band he was in better. He laid a solid rhythmic foundation that would let the front line do their work, and fit like a glove with the rest of the rhythm section. I know he is missed by everyone he played with.
Trombonist / euphonist / vocalist JIM FRYER:
As to Ken Salvo, so many stories start coming into my mind that it’s hard to know where to start and how to organize them. He was a proud father and a devoted husband. He took pride in his “day gig” and I’m sure he was good at it. He was a terrific leader on a gig and a valuable sideman. Playing in the Nighthawks was a stretch for him, reading was not his forte, but he made it work, and his banjo and basic musicianship skills were so good that Vince had him in the band for many years. He also had a kind of old fashioned ethos that younger musicians don’t have today, simply due to changing circumstances. He was a saloon player from the golden olden days, who strove to make everyone in the room happy, in rooms that were full of regular working class folks, not young self-identified hipsters.
Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, bandleader VINCE GIORDANO:
I had moved to Brooklyn in 1979, Ken got my number, and we got a gig. He was the leader, he was on banjo, and I had my tuba and string bass . . . and it worked out great, we had a fun time. He played solid banjo, sang nicely, took swinging solos. He was a great banjoist. I like working with banjo, and he was very musical on it at all times. He was very professional, so we worked a bunch over the years. He would call me over the years.
Little by little, I found out more about Ken. I knew he was from the Chicago area and his family were big traditional jazz lovers. When the Dukes of Dixieland would came into Chicago to play, they would come to his house, because Ken was a great Italian cook. There was a great friendship there, and Ken’s dad had all their records, so he became friends with the Assuntos, and that was another inspiration for him to be in traditional jazz music.
How did Ken join the Nighthawks? Different people had come in and out of the band over the years; people move away or decide they want to play vintage jazz, so I gave him a call, “Would you like to try it?” “I love the band, but you might not be happy with my reading,” but he read the charts down perfectly. And he would take the charts home and work on the Eddie Lang pieces. We had a lot of fun on BOARDWALK EMPIRE and playing private parties and working with Garrison Keillor. When we did Prairie Home Companion at Wolf Trap we would all drive down to Kenny’s house in New Jersey and the bus company — this giant touring bus that would take us and the equipment to Wolf Trap — would pick us up. Kenny and his wife Sandy would have big vats of Dunkin Donuts coffee and donuts for the trip.
Ken was really conscientious sideman — anything he could do to help he did. And he said nice things about working with the band. When we did the RHAPSODY IN BLUE concert with Maurice Peress, he did the solo on LINGER AWHILE and he brought down the house. He was scared about doing it, but I said, “Come on, Kenny, you’re a virtuoso,” and he really did it — even snuck in a RHAPSODY IN BLUE lick. The audience laughed and it broke up Maurice. He would do tasteful things on the banjo, and he was great.
One day, he showed up and told the band that he and Sandy were moving to Florida — a long commute! too long for Monday nights — so he was leaving. We kept in touch for a few years, phone calls and emails. I saw him about a month before he passed — his son got remarried in Maryland and he hired a small contingent of the Nighthawks. I brought a banjo and he played a few numbers and brought the house down. His wife had health problems and passed a few weeks after the party. Between being ill and without his wife, they were married about fifty years . . . that was it.
So we all were sad, and the dance community he would hang with when we played, they all put up nice tributes and pictures. He was a warm friendly guy with a great laugh who liked to talk with people. We all miss him.
Trumpeter, cornetist, composer RANDY SANDKE:
This has been a cruel season for jazz fans. First we lost Phil Schaap, and then George Wein, two giants who did so much to spread the joyous and profound message of the music to all corners of the globe. But someone else passed who, though unnoticed by the jazz media, had a long and vital career as a musician. I’m speaking of Ken Salvo, a banjo and guitar player, who led his own groups but was most identified for his decade-long stint with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks.
Ken was a solid rhythm player, but also an exciting soloist who could hold his own in any musical situation. He was heard regularly on Monday and Tuesday nights at Vince’s home base in NYC, Club Cachet and later Iguana. With the Nighthawks, Ken appeared on several film soundtracks, as well as the band’s Grammy award-winning album of selections from the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.
Ken began his career as a teen-ager, when his father would drive him to Rush St. in Chicago to work at the Red Garter. Ken developed his vast knowledge of tunes and prodigious technique there, working until all hours of the night. This period of the mid-to-late ‘60s was a golden age for banjo and guitar players in Chicago, since Eddy Davis, Marty Grosz, and Ken were all in town at the same time.
Ken moved to New Jersey in the late ‘70s and, in order to support a growing family, became a home inspector. He took to that job so well he became president of the trade organization. He also worked for a time at Allied Van Lines, and was responsible for moving Branford Marsalis and the new Tonight Show Band (including ex-Nighthawk trombonist Matt Finders) from the New York area to L.A. All during this time, Ken continued to play, book jobs, and make himself known in the NY freelance music scene.
In 2017, Ken moved with his wife of nearly fifty years, Sandy, to Venice, Florida. He had managed his finances well and looked forward to many years of playing golf and performing gigs in the area. Before I moved to Venice a couple of years later, Ken called me to offer me a steady job at a club in Cape Coral. He’d drive me down to the gig, about an hour each way, and we’d trade stories about growing up in Chicago, and so much else. We became very close, and he was a total joy on and off the bandstand. He helped smooth the way for me in Florida, and I will be eternally grateful.
All was working out well for him until last fall. He found out that his wife had inoperable brain cancer and her outlook was not good. They tried various treatments with all the attendant hopes and setbacks. In the midst of dealing with Sandy, Ken discovered he had lung cancer, probably from years of smoking in his younger years, plus working in smoky clubs before cigarettes were banned. Somehow he contracted Covid as well.
The end came fast. Sandy died when Ken was in the hospital and he was crushed. They’d known each other since their teenage years and I think Ken couldn’t conceive of living without her. When offered a ventilator he turned it down and passed away a few days later.
I truly loved Ken and grieve his passing. I’m sure that all who knew him, or heard him play, feel the same way. He was everybody’s friend and he will be sorely missed. R.I.P., my dear friend.
Pianist / composer PETER YARIN:
We played for years in the rhythm section of Vince’s Nighthawks together – the Sofia’s and Iguana days. This was countless hours spent sitting inches away, aligning our chords and quarter notes, doing what we all try to do, maintaining our individual parts while fusing with the music and the band. Ken’s playing was exciting, joyful, full of energy, buoyant. He approached the bandstand with determination, grit, and a smile. Always clear was his commitment to and his faith in the music and the way it was to be played.
Solicitous of others’ welfare in tough times, he would respond with warmth and compassion. We joked together a lot. I will miss him. May his spirit resonate on.
P.S. from Michael: thanks to the musicians above who took the time to write lovely memoirs of a good friend and bandstand companion. I will be pleased to post other remembrances of Ken in the comments or perhaps in a future post.
May your happiness increase!