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Pianist's Career's Got That Swing : Jazz: Page Cavanaugh handles ups and downs of decades in the business with equanimity. He and his trio play at OCC this weekend.

March 27, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pianist Page Cavanaugh, one of Southern California's most successful lounge artists, is never far from a joke, or an anecdote.

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One of his favorite topics is old age. Cavanaugh, who is 71, told of being at a concert a few years ago along with such artists as singer Herb Jeffries.

"Someone asked Herb how old he was and he said, 'My body is 75. However, I'm 30,' " Cavanaugh said, chuckling. "I like that philosophy. Herb and I have been close for 100 years, and do we show it!" he added, with a quick, robust laugh.

Cavanaugh's lengthy career could be likened to someone with mood swings: happy, then sad, then happy, then, well, you know.

1947 was a year to smile about. Cavanaugh's trio appeared in three musicals in a row: "Romance on the High Seas," directed by Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca") and starring Doris Day and Jack Carson; "A Song Is Born," with Danny Kaye, and "Big City," with Margaret O'Brien.

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A decade later, he could hardly buy a gig.

"At the end of the '50s, when rock 'n' roll came in, prices went down and you couldn't get arrested. I'd end up playing bowling alleys. It was a bad time," Cavanaugh said in the recent phone interview from his home in Van Nuys. "I was so depressed I even went on the road backing a vocal group." He described the singers in less than enthusiastic terms.

But overall, there has been a remarkable consistency to the artistic life of this Art Tatum-inspired, Swing era-styled pianist who appears with his trio this evening and Sunday afternoon at Orange Coast College.

The Cherokee, Kan., native has worked many long runs in the Los Angeles area.

In the early '50s, he appeared for four years at the Captain's Table on La Cienega Boulevard, playing three months on, a couple of months off. And for the last 2 1/2 years, he has been ensconced with his trio three nights a week at JP's the Money Tree in Toluca Lake.

"A life in music was a good choice for me," Cavanaugh said in the upbeat fashion that typified his conversation. "It's been a damn roller coaster, flying high one day, poor as Job's turkey the next. But I can't think of anything I'd trade it for. My fans are the most loyal in the world."

Cavanaugh is looking forward to performing in Orange County--where he'll bring along longtime associate Al Viola (guitar) and Richard Simon (bass)--if for no other reason than he'll be playing a concert and not a noise-ridden nightclub.

"At a concert, I get a chance to say a few things between tunes, whereas at the Money Tree, I can't hear myself talk," he quipped.

The pianist plays a repertoire of classic pop standards and calls his style "essentially cocktail-type jazz."

"Fairly entertaining is what it boils down to," he explained. Then, tongue definitely in cheek, he said there are limits to what tunes he'll play, or it'll cost you a bundle.

"A long time ago, I decided to charge $5,000 for 'Send in the Clowns,' $10,000 for 'My Way,' $12,000 for 'New York, New York,' which I had to raise to $25,000. Then last year, I hit a new high: $50,000 for anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber," he said, chortling.

It's not just in doing interviews that Cavanaugh enjoys himself, it's at the keyboard, too.

"I've never wanted to sit at the piano and look so dedicated and serious that people say, 'It must be wonderful because he looks that way.' If people are paying to see me, let's look a little bit alive. Not that we wear funny hats, but we also don't look like the world is going to collapse."

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Cavanaugh's music swings, too, which can break up the pianist, whose latest album is "Digital Page, Volume One," on Starline Records. "It does get to cooking hard, and sometimes we'll finish up a number and be roaring and I'll just to turn to Viola and laugh," he said, laughing himself.

The guitarist has been part of the pianist's trio twice: from 1943, when the group started, to 1949, and since 1985, when he rejoined Cavanaugh for a stint at the now-defunct Chez Siam in Encino.

"He's totally brilliant, a demon guitar player," Cavanaugh said. "Al did some terribly important things in his career, like make almost every album Sinatra made, while I stuck with being a road rat. Then my brother called him for the Chez Siam and I was amazed because he agreed to do it. We hadn't played together since 1949. We felt our way through the first week, then it started falling right into place, and by the next week it was the way it had been."

Cavanaugh--who has appeared with Sinatra at the Waldorf Astoria, owned his own nightclub (Page Cavanaugh's in Studio City) and made numerous albums--is quick to reminisce about those halcyon days of the '40s.

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The film "Romance on the High Seas" is a good subject for a story. Cavanaugh will never forget when director Curtiz didn't like the way Day had been singing the now-forgotten novelty tune "Put 'Em in a Box, Tie 'Em With a Ribbon (and Throw 'Em in the Deep Blue Sea)."

"We had done four takes of this tune with Doris, and Ray Heindorf, who was head of music at Warners, had played them all for Mike, who didn't like any of them. So Ray said, 'Look Mike, I've got one more take we didn't want you to hear, it's not very good, but I'll play it for you.' Then Ray went to the engineer in the sound booth and told him to play the last take again, only crank it up loud. Curtiz loved it."

"Now that's what I mean," Cavanaugh said. "It's amazing what a little volume will do."

The Page Cavanaugh trio plays at 8 p.m. today and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Fine Arts Recital Hall at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tickets are $12 at the door. Information: (714) 432-5880.

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