Saturday, February 25, 2017

And This Blog Loves The Dyspeptic Oscar Levant - As Much As He Loathes The Thought

As Monsieur and Madame Blogmeister are currently in New York City, a principal musician stomping ground and incubator of 20th century American showbiz lore, today's topic is concert pianist and ever-acerbic movie/TV/radio personality Oscar Levant (1906-1972)

Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's recent arc has focused on keyboard geniuses (Hazel Scott, Harry Ruby - and more to come), so the composer, virtuoso pianist, songwriter, radio star, author, music historian, actor, commentator, talk show host and showbiz outlier has been on our coffee-soaked minds. An addition, it's a good bet Oscar, an associate of the Algonquin Round Table, no doubt knew the subjects of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's February 5th post, fellow composers Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby, quite well.

Wrote about Mr. Levant, who deemed himself "the irreligious Billy Graham of Los Angeles," back when I started this blog in 2006. Since then, quite a few more clips have surfaced of Oscar on YouTube, so the time is right to spin that long-ago post into a new one. Oscar remains one of this writer's artistic heroes for his humor, erudition, imagination and great talent in far-flung fields.

Mr. Levant would be the premier interpreter of his friend George Gershwin's music. Here he beautifully plays Three Preludes - By George.

One of this writer's favorite segments in the MGM musical An American In Paris is Oscar as conductor and also casting himself as the orchestra performing Concerto In F.

Levant Plays Gershwin is a personal favorite album. Wish he could have recorded more - both the music of other composers and his own compositions.

Mr. Levant also periodically wrote popular music. One of his best songs, Blame It On My Youth, written by Levant and Edward Heyman in 1934, would become a jazz standard - and is performed here by several of the mid-20th century's best vocalists.

He was also something of a raconteur and also known, almost as much he was as a brilliant classical pianist, for his ability to come up with quotable quotes.

Enjoy the only remaining episode left from The Oscar Levant Show, featuring special guest star Fred Astaire. The co-host is Oscar's amazing wife, June, equally a heroine, having dealt with his serious health issues, including hospitalizations and heavyweight bouts with depression. Oscar would have nominated June for sainthood - and here she's a charming and likable co-host. While the picture and sound quality really leave something to be desired, it's all we have; many live television programs of the 1950's and 1960's - and all the other examples The Oscar Levant Show - were taped over to save money. Hey, Oscar plays and offers his usual bon mots, Fred sings, June is there for the fun - it's a treasure.

Such programs as Oscar Levant's shows and Ernie Kovacs' 1954 Dumont Network late-night comedy and the early years of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson ended up meeting the same fate as thousands of historic silent movies on nitrate film, which subsequently spontaneously combusted. At least Edie Adams rescued many Kovacs shows and a few of Oscar's appearances on Tonight With Jack Parr survived.

Well, look on the bright side - Oscar did get to be the guest star on Jack Benny's TV show, not surprisingly, after several memorable turns on the radio incarnation of The Jack Benny Program.

Had Oscar only written his three splendid memoirs, A Smattering Of Ignorance, Memoirs of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance Of Being Oscar, it would have been enough.

Had he only appeared as his wonderful dyspeptic self in the outstanding MGM musicals The Band Wagon, An American In Paris and The Barkleys Of Broadway, his place in the pantheon would be unquestionable.

Had he only spent those many Manhattan late-nights jamming on pianos with George Gershwin and Kay Swift, Oscar - as much as he would hate to admit it - made the world a better place.

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