40. Tea for Two: The acme of Banality

Posted on 18/03/2017

40. Tea for Two: The acme of Banality

‘Tea for Two’ is a remarkable song. It is both an extremely hackneyed piece, and also one which has inspired many jazz musicians and singers to remarkable feats of musicianship. The song was written in 1924 by Irving Ceasar. He wrote show tunes, but this was his big hit: one of the most recorded songs in history. He is notable among showbiz types for longevity: he made it to 101!

The verse starts with a very contemporary line:

I’m discontented with homes that are rented
So I have invented my own;
Darling this place is a lover’s oasis,

In England the present time is called ‘Generation Rent’ as younger people can no longer afford to buy in places where the jobs mainy are (London and the South East). There is also a clever rhyme: ‘place is/oasis’.

The chorus is a bit long:

Picture you upon my knee
Just tea for two and two for tea,
Just me for you and you for me alone.
Nobody near us to see us or hear us,
No friends or relations on weekend vacations,
We won’t have it known, dear,
That we own a telephone, dear,
Day will break and you’ll awake
And start to bake a sugar cake
For me to take for all the boys to see.
We will raise a family,
A boy for you, a girl for me,
Oh can’t you see how happy we would be?

But the only line that really sticks is the ‘tea for two’ one.

Here is a ‘straight’ version by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell of the great Boswell sisters. You probably only need to listen to a verse to get the idea:

 

Follow that with the instrumental by the Victor Sylvester ‘Strict Tempo’ dance orchestra: memorably boring but I find slightly mesmerising. He was on the raido a lot when I was a child, so I got programmed by him.

Again a verse will give you the idea. A 1950’s varation on this 1920’s song was provided by the cha cha, into which the tune and rhythm fitted perfectly:

 

Thats the end of the straight versions. The first Art Tatum version puts a jazz twist onto the tune:

 

As you can see the great (and blind) pianist plays the tune several times over, altering it each time. Most jazz musicians state the melody and then play variations on it. Tatum could afford to play the tune again and again (with parts of one hand) while playing new variations on it each time. Extraordinary.

Another version is by Django Rheinhardt. He plays it more straight, but his attacking guitar makes every song sound different:

 

The violinist Stephane Grapelli can be heard on the intro. Django then comes in a plays a range of beautiful notes only a few of which are from the tune, but all of them evoke it.

Finally another Tatum version:

 

If you compare the two Tatum version the second is slower, but after a couple of choruses he zooms off into a zareba of cadences quite unlike the first version. A great jazz musician wont play the time tune twice in the same way, and Tatum was one of the tops.

One of the reasons for a fast tempo in the first version, which was recorded in the early 1930’s when Tatum as young, was that at that time ‘cutting contests’ were a feature of the ‘after hours’ sessions in which musicians competed with each other to show off their skills. Just like kids in a skaterboard arena. As you can infer from the first Tatum version, he could outplay anyone. Nobody tried to beat him for sheer virtuosity, style and speed. He was a rocket to the moon.

Tea for Two has been played by so many mediocre singers/musicians that it has become a type example of banality. But if you look at the really good ones, like the above, the song comes out fresh each time. It is indeed a very good song.

 

 

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