Let’s begin with a gently ravishing performance of this song by Peter Mintun:
Peter, who is a fine scholar as well as a wooing performer, notes that the song comes from the Paramount film MURDER AT THE VANITIES, where it is sung during a huge production number with ostrich feathers forming the waves of the ocean. The 1934 film stars Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglen, Kitty Carlisle, Jack Oakie, Gertrude Michael, Dorothy Stickney, Gail Patrick, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, and Jessie Ralph.
I find the melody irresistible, and the lyrics are especially charming, deftly avoiding certain hackneyed phrases and rhymes that a lesser writer would have seized on. And to me, carpe diem for lovers is always an attractive idea.
Here’s a contemporaneous version of LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT, leisurely and convincing. Don’t let the surface noise get in the way of romance:
Now, the more famous 1934 version (at least to the jazz cognoscenti), which was my introduction to the song:
How beautiful that is! I feel wrapped up in that orchestral sound, the soaring invitation of Johnny Hodges’ soprano, the timbres of the different soloists who write their own personal variations on the melody. (It’s a recording I could listen to a number of times in a row and each time hear something rewarding.)
Five years later, in a small cramped Chicago studio:
That recording is also a series of delights — Walter Page’s energetic bass lines behind Basie’s homage to his mentor Fats, the sound of the rhythm section, the creations of Buck Clayton and the ever-surprising Lester Young.
I have always wondered how LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT came in to that session. One ready hypothesis is the hand of John Hammond, who had favorite songs from the Twenties and early Thirties that he urged musicians to record (something that angered Billie Holiday greatly), so I can see him bringing the sheet music to the session. And I believe, based on the recorded evidence, that Basie and his musicians didn’t feel a great need to expand their repertoire — that Basie would have gone on playing the blues, I GOT RHYTHM, and perhaps I AIN’T GOT NOBODY happily for decades.
But I also wonder how powerfully LIVE AND LOVE TONIGHT made an impression on jazz musicians, because who of them would not have seen a movie with Duke in it? It’s a mystery, but the results are gorgeous.
Ten or twenty years ago, I would have heard these recordings (leaving Peter aside for a moment) and seen a clear line of “improvement,” of musical progress. To my younger ears, Harman’s version would have been sticky-sweet, and I would have endured the record hoping for a hot eight-bar solo on the final bridge, in the fashion of 1931 hot dance records. I would have been in love with the Ellington recording — which in its own delicious way, is also “dance music,” but to me the apex of all things gratifying in music would have been the Basie recording. I still find the final recording thrilling, but I no longer want to construct stairways of progress, where everything ascends to a Hero or Heroine, and all that has come before is somehow inferior.
Good music is satisfying on its own terms, or at least it should be.
And love — not just for tonight or today — will keep us alive for sure.
May your happiness increase!