In retrospect, the swing era seems to have been marked by a kind of musical hedonism. The excitement generated by big bands, the exotic dance hall environments in which they worked, the vivid publicity which they earned, all contributed to the idea that non-stop enjoyment was not only desirable but inevitable. Swing numbers were usually up-tempo, the dancers busily jitterbugging, the bandsmen sometimes outlandish, their road stories helping to sustain the music's glamorous aura.
Much of this (if not all) is true, of course. Swing-style jazz flourished in America and Europe in the immediate post-depression period, building in popularity as the Second World War loomed so who can blame the fans for their desire to shut out oncoming difficulties? They wanted entertainment and pleasure, and loved the animation and vitality of the best swing bands. For all that, the famous orchestras or instrumentalists of the day knew full well that a diet of non-stop flag-wavers could pall and paced their presentations with slower ballads and blues, often featuring a key soloist who might create a lush version of a show song. Of course, this allowed dancers to smooch, to linger romantically, before the programme changed.
It's this facet of swing - its 'laid-back' aspect in modern parlance - which we celebrate here. Tempos are slower and some smaller groups are given their head, the individual players better able to demonstrate their virtuosity and control. The music still swings, but there's subtlety and sophistication in these performances as well.
Bennett 'Benny' Carter is one of the most accomplished all-rounders that jazz has ever produced. Internationally recognised as an outstanding alto-saxophonist, one of the style-setters for the instrument, he is also adept on clarinet and tenor-saxophone, and on occasion will perform as trumpeter and pianist. Alone of the leaders represented here, he is still active and at the age of eighty-eight travels and records regularly. A calm, temperate man, this New Yorker is a consummate solo artist yet has enjoyed parallel success as both bandleader and arranger-composer.
The title track is his: Nightfall comes from a session organised by the writer Leonard Feather for the Vocalian label and made in April 1936 while Carter was based in London as staff arranger for Henry Hall and his Orchestra. Carter plays with a group of top-flight British musicians and was moved to say later "how delighted I was with the work of the orchestra which played with me on my first English recordings". Their quality is apparent yet it's Carter's contributions which stand out. He plays the slightly gloomy melody on clarinet before essaying his first-ever recorded solo on tenor saxophone, using an instrument borrowed from a colleague. Inevitably, his solo is poised an effective. Just A Mood (made a few days later with a smaller line-up) is precisely titled, Carter's writing creating a wistful effect that's immediately attractive. He's heard on clarinet, the trumpet solo is by Tommy McQuater and the boomy tenor by Buddy Featherstonehaugh.
By 1937, Carter was based in Holland and made a number of recordings with his international group, featuring the fine British trombonist, George Chisolm. Mighty Like The Blues, a pretty Leonard Feather tune, opens with Carter on trumpet, before Coleman Hawkins bustles in on tenor, pushing the theme this way and that, after which Chisolm plays a well-ordered muted solo. Easy-going and relaxed, Lazy Afternoon was made the day before and is another international affair. Melancholy Lullaby dates from June 1939 after Carter had returned to America, and features his big band. Carter states the melody elegantly on alto, returning to complete the side after trombonist Tyree Glenn's brief solo. Given the richness and variety of his talents, it's no wonder that Carter is called 'the King' by his fellow musicians.
Another who earned high praise was Coleman Hawkins (1904-69); the man credited with turning the tenor saxophone into a credible solo jazz instrument. His version of the standard, Body And Soul, has become a jazz classic. Aside from pianist Gene Rodgers' mood-setting introduction, this is the Hawk at his inexorable best, showing relaxed virtuosity and harmonic ingenuity, rhapsodic and compelling. It also signalled Hawkins' return from a five-year sabbatical in Europe where he had taken refuge in 1934, feeling undervalued in his own country. While in London to work with Jack Hylton, Hawkins recorded a series of improvisations with a British rhythm section. Lost In A Fog is a duet with pianist Stanley Black (then aged twenty-one, and later a popular bandleader) and demonstrates Hawk's huge tone and searching harmonic sense. Quite simply, at that time no-one else played the tenor with such insouciance, such easy command. Much the same can be said for Black's Lullaby, another imperious reading with a neat rhythmic change mid-way through.
Hawkins later travelled to Holland, much as Carter had done, and linked with a fellow American, the pianist Freddy Johnson, for a series of superb duo recordings. Johnson was the same age as Hawkins but had made the transition to Europe earlier, one of the many black jazzmen who found the atmosphere there more congenial than at home. Lamentation is Hawkins all the way, with Johnson quietly stating the chords. Devotion is a touch more sprightly but no less memorable, as Hawkins works through a series of playful choruses.
Our final pairing of bandleaders provides a number of contrasts. Benny Goodman (1909-86) was named the 'King of Swing' by a publicist. A white clarinettist from a poor Chicago background, he achieved enormous popularity as a bandleader, after some earlier reverses. By all accounts a man who found working relationships difficult, he focused obsessively on his music, developing exceptional instrumental facility. Often clumsy with people, he earned the respect of his fellow-musicians if not always their affection. Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington (1899-1974) was the adored son of a White House butler, who became a fine band pianist, the most prolific jazz composer of the century, and an urbane, if private, front-man for his orchestra, retaining his musicians for decades and enjoying huge critical and popular success.
Goodman had the good sense to base his band's style on the arranging skills of black arrangers like Fletcher Henderson and Jimmy Mundy, and it was their superb charts which underpinned his success. He also had the sense to listen to his brother-in-law, John Hammond, who brought the black pianist Teddy Wilson to his attention. At first, Wilson played in a separate small combo on Goodman's dance engagements. He was featured extensively on the early Goodman Trio recordings, and was thereby launched on a fine career of his own. More Than You Know is a delightful reminder of their association, Wilson's spacious, expansive piano at one with Goodman's soaring clarinet, Gene Krupa quietly supportive on drums.
By 1938, Dave Tough had replaced Krupa and they were performing Sweet Lorraine, a great favourite of Goodman's and forever associated with his mentor, the exceptional New Orleans clarinettist Jimmie Noone. Later, Goodman added more Hammond discoveries, notably the black guitarist Charlie Christian, a short-lived genius, whose fluid, across-the-bar solo lines set the pattern for bebop and modern jazz. Memories Of You, composed by ragtimer Eubie Blake, was Goodman's signature tune and this 1939 sextet version is notable for a Christian contribution typical of many described by Goodman biographer Ross Firestone as "wonderfully sunny improvisations". Another extraordinary black musician, the indestructible Lionel Hampton is heard on vibes as Nick Fatool whispers away on drums.
Christian and Hampton were still in place for I Surrender Dear and These Foolish Things, the latter giving brief exposure to Los Angeles pianist Dudley Brooks, later a vocal coach to many movie stars. A master melodist and hot soloist, Goodman created a personal approach to the clarinet which many players still seek to emulate.
Speaking of his employer, an Ellington musician once said, ""Everybody knew we were working with a genius."" Perhaps that explains why so many star instrumentalists stayed with him for so long. Duke created melodies with individual players in mind and knew just how to exploit a soloists individual qualities in an orchestral piece. Happily for audiences, he also had a capacity to write captivating songs and themes, many still hugely popular today. Sophisticated lady, recorded in 1933, and In A Sentimental Mood, from 1935, are two such pieces, the latter made glorious by Johnny Hodges on soprano sax and the peerless baritone sax of Harry Carney. Note too, Duke's unique ensemble voicings.
By 1933, Ellington had vacated his long-term residency at New York's Cotton Club and begun to capitalise on his burgeoning fame. The band starred in films, toured, and visited Europe for the first time, appearing at the London Palladium. Their version of Harold Arlen's stately Stormy Weather is notable for trumpeter Cootie Williams's plunger-muted solo and the dignified trombone of Lawrence Brown. The pure-toned clarinet is by Barney Bigard.
Blue Feeling and Accent On Youth, both by Duke are less well-known but carry forward our theme of easy-going and unhurried music, combining slower tempos, pretty melodies and superlative solo playing - quite the best way to end an evening as 'nightfall' approaches...
Peter Vacher 1997