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Tea for Two (1924)

Origin and Chart Information
Tatum’s legendary recording brought “Tea for Two” into the jazz canon ...

- Chris Tyle

Rank 59
Music

Vincent Youmans

Lyrics Irving Caesar

“Tea for Two” was introduced by Louise Groody and John Barker in the Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette, which opened on September 16, 1925, at the Globe Theater and ran for 321 performances. The song was known to the public well before its official introduction, as the pre-Broadway run of No, No, Nanette was so successful in Chicago that its producer, Harry Frazee, let it play there for over a year.

 

Louise Groody enjoyed a successful but short career which started in cabaret. In 1920 she appeared in the Jerome (more...)

 

John Barker got a boost to his career when No, No Nanette bombed in its out-of-town trials in 1924. Producer (more...)

The Benson Orchestra of Chicago was the first to see their recording of “Tea for Two” on the pop charts. Their instrumental rendition was recorded in August of 1924 and entered the charts the following January, rising to number five. That same month a Marion Harris recording climbed the charts to number one and held that position for three weeks. All told, the charting hits were:

  • The Benson Orchestra of Chicago (1925, instrumental, #5)
  • Marion Harris, (1925, #1)
  • Ben Bernie and His Orchestra (1925, instrumental, #10)
  • Ipana Troubadours (1930, #15)
  • Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra (1937, instrumental, #18)
  • Art Tatum (1939, instrumental, #18)
  • Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, led by Warren Covington (1958, as “Tea for Two Cha Cha”, instrumental, #7)

 

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

Also starring Charles Winniger, No, No, Nanette is about a wealthy Bible manufacturer accompanying his ward (Nanette) and her girl friends to Atlantic City for a weekend. Problems arise when her boyfriend, her father’s girlfriends, his wife, and lawyer arrive unexpectedly.

The show’s score, by composer Vincent Youmans and lyricists Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach, produced a second jazz standard, “I Want to Be Happy” (lyrics by Caesar).

For those familiar with baseball history, Harry Frazee, former owner of the Boston Red Sox, is said to have financed No, No, Nanette using the proceeds of his $100,000 sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. Red Sox fans have long blamed the transaction for the demise of their franchise, calling it “The Curse of the Bambino.”

According to Glenn Stout, author of Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball, “Frazee has become a malevolent figure like other local symbols of evil such as the Boston Strangler, Bucky ‘Bleeping’ Dent, and Don Zimmer.” Stout goes on to say that, while it’s a nice story, Frazee did not use the $100,000 to finance his play. Frazee was, at that time, embroiled in an assortment of complex legal and financial struggles, but they did not involve his theatrical interests. If anything, he intended to use the money for his ongoing lawsuits, or possibly new ball players.

No, No, Nanette was adapted to the big screen in 1930 and again in 1940, both films, at best, mediocre. In the 1950 Doris Day vehicle entitled Tea for Two, little of the No, No, Nanette story line was retained, but for Day fans it is considered one of her better musicals.

In 1971 No, No, Nanette was revived as No, No, Nanette – The New 1925 Musical. The successful show opened January 19, 1971, at the 46th Street Theatre, ran for 861 performances and won four Tony awards including Best Actress for Helen Gallagher. The revival is also remembered for bringing tap dancing star Ruby Keeler back to the stage after 30 years.

For his lyric’s “hook phrase,” Irving Caesar used the term “Tea for Two,” originally an 18th Century English street cry. A vendor wanting to attract business would lower the price of a pot of tea from thruppence to tuppence by shouting, ‘tea for two.’ In the 19th century, when Victorian ladies and gentlemen would meet in the afternoon for tea, the order of “Tea for Two” was often an early sign of courting.

There are a number of stories relating how Youmans came up with the melody for “Tea for Two.” Some have him so overjoyed with his creation that he got Caesar out of bed to write the lyrics. But, according to David Ewen in his book, All the Years of American Popular Music, “Tea for Two” was written many years before, while Youmans was still in the Navy. All accounts do agree, however, that when he presented the melody to Caesar, Youmans wanted a lyric then and there. Caesar wrote what he thought was a “dummy lyric,” promising to write the real one the next day. Apparently Youmans and Caesar reconsidered in the morning and retained the quaint lyrics with what Philip Furia in his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists calls “the tritest of rhymes,” the ee-oo pair.

 

Vincent Youmans was as esteemed in the ‘20s and ‘30’s as his contemporary, George Gershwin. The son of a prosperous (more...)

 

Irving Caesar lived through the era of the great American song, when our music was exported and loved around the (more...)

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Although sentimental, operetta-like lyrics were fading in popularity in the early 1900’s, they had not completely fallen from favor by 1924, especially in Broadway musicals. But by the middle 1900’s, songs like “Tea for Two,” thought to be corny and dated, were relegated to novelty tune status. A case in point, “Tea for Two” was the number Doc Severinsen’s Band would play while Johnny Carson broke into a soft-shoe dance when a joke or skit failed.

Saving the song from extinction, and responsible for its popularity as a jazz standard, is the repetitive and energetic nature of Youmans’ composition. Its refrain is almost entirely dotted quarter and eighth notes; its narrow range is just over one octave; and the bridge is almost not a bridge, repeating the main theme in a different key. William Zinsser comments on “Tea for Two” and other Youmans songs in his book Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs saying,

By all the laws of music those songs should be monotonous. But they’re full of life. Their very repetitiveness propels them forward, giving them a nervous momentum…

This coupling of energy and repetition provides an excellent basis, a unified composition, upon which jazz musicians can perform embellishments and improvisations. -JW

Musical analysis of “Tea for Two”

Original Key Ab major with false key change to C major during second “A” section
Form A1 – A2 – A3 – B
Tonality Major throughout
Movement Almost entirely in thirds, with a step-wise descent in mm. 1-4 of “B”

Comments     (assumed background)

Melodically repetitive, the harmonic progression is a fairly undemanding vehicle for improvisation. In its most basic form (without the embellishing chords originally written by Youmans), it’s a ii7 –V7 – I progression in two different keys until section “B,” which is basically no more than ii7 – VI7 (V7/ii) – ii7 repeated several times until a final I –iii˚7 – ii7 turnaround. In reality, Youmans uses several chord substitutions that make the original score much more interesting than the way it is usually played these days. It is worth the time to track down the original version when learning this tune.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath's book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musician's Comments
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Soundtrack Information
Tea for Two” was included in these films:
  • No, No, Nanette (1930)
  • No, No, Nanette (1940)
  • Tea for Two (1950, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae)
  • Young Man with a Horn (1950, instrumental)
  • With a Song in My Heart (1952, Susan Hayward dubbed by Jane Froman, Robert Wagner)
  • The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)
  • Sincerely Yours (1955, Liberace)
  • Show Biz Bugs (1957, Milt Franklyn) Bugs BUnny cartoon
  • Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960, Anita O'Day)
  • Oscar (1991, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians)
  • The Mambo Kings (1992, Mambo All-Stars)
  • Forget Paris (1995)
And on stage:
  • No, No, Nanette (1925) Broadway musical
  • No, No, Nanette (1971) Broadway revival
  • No, No, Nanette (1973) London revival
And on television:
  • No, No, Nanette (1951) NBC Musical Comedy Time
  • The Muppet Show (1979, Rowlf, Lew Zealand) Sseason 3, Episode 62
  • Sex and the City (2002, Nancy Shane) HBO TV series, Season 4, Episode 63, "Change of a Dress"
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Soundtracks

Jazz History Notes
Also by the Same Writers...
Reading & Research

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on a CD for more details at Amazon.com
Anita O’Day

Ultimate Anita O’Day
1999, Verve
Original recording, 1956
The performances for this compilation were selected and annotated by fellow vocalist Alan Paul of Manhattan Transfer. “Tea for Two” was revived in popularity after O’Day gave it this signature treatment.

Lester Young

Lester Young and the Oscar Peterson Trio
1997 Verve 521451
Original recording, 1952
“Tea for Two” in the hands of tenor saxophonist Lester Young is bouncy and sharp. The incomparable ‘trio’ that accompanies him is made up of Oscar Peterson at the piano, Ray Brown on bass, Barney Kessel on the guitar and J.C. Heard on the drums.

Thelonious Monk

Criss-Cross
2003, Sony
Original recording, 1963, Legacy
Pianist Monk is at his slyest on two takes of the song. Both tracks are highly imaginative with touches of humor and a vibrant splash of ragtime. Bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop are the perfect foils for Monk’s improvisations.

Jacky Terrasson/ Cassandra Wilson

Rendezvous
1997, Blue Note 55484
Pianist Terrasson and vocalist Wilson combine to deliver an almost unrecognizable version of “Tea for Two.” Under their care the song is slow and melancholic.

Erroll Garner

That’s My Kick & Gemini
1994, Telarc 83332
Original recording, 1967, Octave Records
Hand drums set a highly rhythmic pace before pianist Garner comes in--on harpsichord! The unusual Latin setting seems oddly right for the ancient instrument. Switching to piano for the mid-section, Garner keeps it swinging very hard and fills in the harmony. He closes the tune on harpsichord with insistent, Monkish single lines.
Jazz History Notes

No discussion of this tune would be complete without crediting Art Tatum, the man who would inspire generations of jazz musicians with his brilliant treatment of “Tea for Two.” Although Tatum’s piano solo recording shared last place with Teddy Wilson in the pop chart recordings list, it has turned out to be one of the most famous and influential recordings in jazz history. Tatum had been playing “Tea for Two” for years before the recording. It was the song he played in 1931 at his first cutting session (competition between bands or musicians) with Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. That evening, one man after another took turns, each topping the other until, with some coaxing from Waller, Tatum took a seat and played his “Tea for Two.” When he was done you could hear a pin drop. The gentlemen had met their match!

Tatum’s legendary recording brought “Tea for Two” into the jazz canon, but that was not all it accomplished. His use of substitute chords, popularized by his 1939 recording in which he completely transforms the third chorus, would have a profound and lasting effect on the way jazz musicians improvise on popular songs.

Renowned jazz pianist Michel Camilo remembers hearing Tatum’s “Tea for Two” on the radio at age fourteen. As a result the classically trained youth decided to become a jazz musician. “I found out that was called jazz, and I fell in love with it. Then I found out that was improvisation, which for me is instant composition.”

Jazz historian Joe Mosbrook, in his Jazzed in Cleveland series (www.cleveland.oh.us/wmv_news) tells how Oscar Peterson first met Tatum at the Cleveland club, Val’s in the Alley.

[Peterson recounts,] “We had a beer or two and I said, `Hey, man, I’d like to hear you play!’ Tatum said, `You play first.’” Peterson said he was young and eager, so he did. “When I finished, Tatum told me, `Hey, I like your style very much.’” Tatum asked him what he wanted to hear. Peterson said, “Something like `Tea For Two.’” “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, said Peterson, “I’m about six foot four and I was leaning against the piano and my legs just went to water. By the time he got through three more numbers, I couldn’t take it anymore….”

Art Tatum’s 1939 recording of “Tea for Two” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986.

The grand master’s collection of standards, Piano Starts Here, illustrates the unmatched clarity and speed of his playing and contains his 1933 rendition of “Tea for Two.” -JW

The Quintette of the Hot Club of France, the group that starred Belgian-gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grappelli, recorded a sublime rendition of “Tea for Two” in May, 1939.

Reinhardt and Grappelli open the proceedings on the verse, out-of-tempo. This is a version of the tune without fireworks, taken at a medium tempo, perfect for dancing at a Montmartre cabaret. Django’s solo is magical, perhaps one of his best, especially the second-half where he repeatedly hits a single note, allowing it to resonate, then improvises a few bars. Grappelli follows him in a solo borrowing some ideas from the virtuoso American jazz violinist Joe Venuti. The tune ends with a shortened version of the verse, as before out-of-tempo, with just Django and Stephane. Jazz musique par excellence.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt, 1939-1940
Classic 813

Art Tatum

Piano Starts Here
(1995, Sony 64690)
Written by the Same Composer or Team...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team. Click on a name to see all of a writer's jazz standards.

Irving Caesar and Vincent Youmans

YearRankTitle
192459Tea for Two
1925149Sometimes I’m Happy
1924215I Want to Be Happy
Reading and Research

Additional information on “Tea for Two” may be found in:


1 paragraph including the following types of information: music analysis.

3 pages including the following types of information: history and lyric analysis.

2 paragraphs including the following types of information: history.

1 paragraph including the following types of information: film productions, history and performers.

1 page including the following types of information: music analysis.

1 paragraph including the following types of information: summary, lyric analysis and music analysis.

1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.

1 page including the following types of information: history, performers, style discussion and song writer discussion.

Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.

1 paragraph including the following types of information: history.

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