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Book Excerpts

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire

By Published: June 25, 2012
Give lyricist Irving Caesar credit for admitting, years later in an interview with Steve Allen, that the words were just supposed to be temporary fillers, replaced later by something more profound. But no later fixing took place—or was needed: the song and its musical, No, No, Nanette, were successes, and both would be revived periodically in future years. Even so, the show had a hidden cost: a fanciful—and possibly true—legend claims that producer Harry Frazee raised money for No, No, Nanette by selling Babe Ruth, then a player for Frazee's Boston Red Sox, to the Yankees. For this reason alone, those Bostonbred Berklee College of Music students ought to insist on a perpetual boycott of this tune.

Yet "Tea for Two" has enjoyed widespread popularity, not just with the general public—no accounting for their tastes, after all—but even in highbrow circles. Dmitri Shostakovich scored a very dainty arrangement of it, and it even got him in trouble with Soviet Union authorities for its decadent Western influences. Piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz developed his own version of the song, which was recorded but never released. Put these beside the more than 700 jazz recordings and you would need a massive tea set to serve all the famous artists who have put their stamp on the Vincent Youmans tune.

Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
featured the song as a keyboard showpiece when he arrived in New York and recorded a bravura solo version at his celebrated March 1933 session for the Brunswick label. At a now-legendary cutting contest, he relied on this number to beat into submission an all-star assembly of New York's finest jazz pianists, including Fats Waller
Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
piano
, James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
1894 - 1955
piano
, and Willie "The Lion" Smith
Willie
Willie "The Lion" Smith
1897 - 1973
piano
. "When Tatum played 'Tea for Two' that night, I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played," the great James P. later recalled. Tatum's recording does little to persuade me of the significance of the song, but does show what a formidable pianist Tatum was at age 23.

Fats Waller clearly wasn't shaken enough to hand the song over to Tatum, and offered up his own solo version in 1937—an uncharacteristically graceful and subdued performance from this often raucous performer. That same year, Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
performed it with an all-star quartet and Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
1910 - 1953
guitar
recorded it in Paris. In fact, Reinhardt tackled "Tea for Two" on five separate occasions in the period leading up to World War II. My favorite is his 1937 solo version, with its impressive reworking of the song's underlying harmonies.

I suspect that the ease with which this song is adapted to ulterior purposes is what keeps it in the jazz repertoire. The best jazz versions have a certain extravagance about them. Mark Levine has recorded an Afro-Cuban version (under the name "Te Para Dos") that might make you think that the composers had written it with a montuno in mind. And for other subversive examples, just listen to Dave Brubeck's bold conception of the standard from his fi rst trio session for the Fantasy label, Bud Powell's blistering version recorded the following year, or Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
's quirky interpretation from 1963.

Even more intriguing than the version Monk recorded, however, was the one he might have made three months earlier, when both the high priest of bop and the famous concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz were present at Columbia's New York studio on the same day. This was the occasion when Horowitz recorded his never released version of "Tea for Two." I enjoy speculating on what might have happened if Monk had joined Horowitz in a duet to show him how it should be played.

Recommended versions

Art Tatum, New York, March 21, 1933

Benny Goodman (with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa), New York, February 3, 1937

Fats Waller, New York, June 11, 1937

Django Reinhardt, Paris, December 28, 1937

Dave Brubeck, San Francisco, September 1949

Bud Powell (with Ray Brown and Buddy Rich), New York, June—July 1950

Thelonious Monk from Criss Cross, New York, February 26, 1963

Norma Winstone, from Somewhere Called Home, Oslo, July 1986

Mark Levine (recorded as "Te Para Dos"), from Isla, Berkeley, California, 2002

Learn more about The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire . © 2012, Ted Gioia


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