HOW HISTORY ALMOST HAPPENED AT THE PAGE THREE
By Dave Frishberg
Around the time I first came to New York, during the late fifties, I got a call from a piano player named Johnny Knapp. He asked if I would be interested in replacing him with the band at The Page Three. It was a two piece band–piano and drums. “You have to play a continuous show,” he told me, “the hours are 9pm to 4am, and the pay is seventy-five a week.” I told him I would be interested.
The Page Three was a cabaret on Seventh Avenue a block south of the Village Vanguard and, situated there, it was an ideal gig for me. I was living right across the street on Waverly Place, and I could dash out of my apartment five minutes before we hit, and even dash back and forth during intermissions. I took the gig.
I thought I was hip, but I wasn’t ready for The Page Three. When I first walked in it took me a while to realize that most of the staff and many of the customers were dressed as the opposite sex. It was like a museum of sexual lifestyles. I knew nothing of this.
The musical part was equally intimidating. The policy was continuous entertainment, and although we must have been provided with intermissions, my memory is that the drummer Jimmy Olin and I were never off the stage. Six entertainers did three shows a night. They rotated out of a stable of ten so that each entertainer worked four or five nights a week. This was a hell of a lot of music and paper to deal with, since everybody needed rehearsals, and some of the performers came with thick books of arrangements.
Kiki Hall was the MC. After the first rehearsal I had to take Kiki’s music home and work on it. He did risque patter and naughty lyrics, and there was a lot of ad lib accompaniment and stops and starts, and it all went by very fast. Kiki did Noel Coward material like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington,” and some Dwight Fiske material, and other stuff I had never heard of. He was ruthless about the piano part, tolerated no mistakes, and demanded extra rehearsals during the week. He was a pain in the ass.
The hostess, Jackie Howe, was a solidly built woman with a big friendly smile who always dressed in a tweed business suit. She liked jazz musicians, and she sang obscure songs like “Mississippi Dreamboat” and “Like a Ship in the Night.” I was learning a lot of unfamiliar and interesting material.
The rest of the cast was a jumble of characters, talented and untalented: There was Kerri April, who dressed in a tuxedo and made up his face to look like a woman, and Laurel Watson who was a terrific rhythm and blues singer, and Bubbles Kent, a female body-builder who did a strip dance to “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” Tiny Tim, who was just beginning to do his act, was from time to time a member of the cast, although during the months I worked there he appeared only a couple of nights, subbing for one of the other acts. I remember the occasions chiefly because of the fact that Jimmy Olin and I were able to get off the stage for a cigarette or two while Tiny accompanied himself on the ukelele or whatever it was. Jimmy and I would listen from the front bar, and we had some good laughs, but the fact was that in the context of The Page Three staff, entertainers, and clientele, Tiny Tim didn’t seem all that bizarre.
The Unique Monique was especially unrewarding to play for. She was a beautiful blonde Viking who was apparently buffaloed by the prospect of singing a song, and seemed to have borrowed someone else’s hands and feet for the ordeal. She sang “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and at the end she would jab a finger toward some poor guy sitting at a front table and give him the “I saw YOOOOO,” on the major seventh, dismally out of tune.
What Jimmy and I looked forward to each night was Sheila Jordan. Sheila was magic. The customers would stop gabbing and all the entertainers would turn their attention to Sheila and the whole place would be under her spell. She was doing “If You Could See Me Now” and “Baltimore Oriole” and some of the other material that she subsequently put on record.
During my time at The Page Three I began to grasp the fundamentals of how to be a helpful accompanist and by the time I was ready to move on even Kiki Hall was pleased and confident with the way I played for him. In fact when I told him I was leaving to join Sol Yaged at the Metropole Kiki threw a tantrum. “Oh, no! Who’s going to play my Noel Coward material?”
“I got just the guy,” I told him.
About a week earlier I had met the pianist Herbie Nichols, who was a unique jazz stylist, very advanced and adventurous and as unorthodox and original as Thelonious Monk. But I heard Nichols play in a conventional situation, and I immediately understood that this guy could be musical and appropriate in all kinds of contexts. I sounded him about the Page Three. He was interested.
Sure enough, Herbie was a hit with the cast, and became the new pianist. I stopped in one night to dig him, and Jackie Howe gave me the big smile and the OK sign. Herbie sounded like a million bucks and everybody
A few weeks later I dropped by The Page Three after my gig. When Kiki Hall saw me he began hissing “It’s your fault!”, and Jackie Howe had to restrain him from going for my throat. The Unique Monique was on stage, and she seemed even more lost than usual. “I saw YOOO..” she sang on that dismal major seventh, and the pianist resolved the chord a half step down so Monique’s note became the tonic. It was shocking and unearthly, and the customers began to laugh. . Monique stumbled off the stage in tears. I looked at the pianist and I didn’t recognize him. Herbie Nichols had sent a sub. The other singers were sitting in a booth, all very upset, and they were refusing to go on. Kiki was climbing the walls, and Bubbles Kent had gone home.
Sheila Jordan greeted me with a big smile. “You really missed something tonight,” she said. “You should have heard Kiki’s show. You should have heard “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” It was really out there! You know who that is on piano, don’t you? You don’t? That’s Cecil Taylor,” she told me. “Herbie sent him to sub. He’s been here all night, played for everyone. You’ve never heard a show like this in your life.”
I thought that over for a moment, wishing I had it on tape. Then a thought hit me. “Sheila,” I said. “Dare I ask? Could it be true? Did Tiny Tim perform tonight?”
“No, damn it,” she said. “Wouldn’t that have been priceless.”
“Well, Tiny Tim doesn’t use piano anyway,” I said, “so it wouldn’t have happened.”
Sheila said, “Oh yes it would have happened. Cecil would have played. Cecil would have insisted on playing.”
Herbie Nichols came back the next night and I assume all was forgiven. Herbie died not long after this took place.. My path and Sheila’s path still cross once in a while, and naturally I go into my Page Three routines. I can still get a laugh with my Monique imitation, but the Page Three survivors list is dwindling, and there are few of us left to share the memories, real and imagined.. But I keep the stories going, and I have been known in weak moments to announce that I once saw Cecil Taylor play for Tiny Tim. So let the word go forth now that it never happened. I only wish it had happened. Of course, I’m assuming that they never got together privately.
©2006 Dave Frishberg