Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's a Levant? (a wind, a region, a whole state of mind)

I! GIVE! UP! I've spent an obscenely long time trying to get something (or some thingS) to cut and paste, from different sites, so shame on me anyway, I shouldn't do that. The line spacing was SO fucked up that no matter what I did to fix it, it just didn't work.

But I still got all this information, see? Stuff that really intrigued me, because though my current uber-obsession Oscar Levant was of Russian-Jewish ethnicity, Levant is a very French-sounding name, with very French-sounding connotations (not to mention English: levitating, levity, leverage, all that stuff.)


Since I'm tired of fighting with the line-spacing crap, I'm sitting here listening to Levant playing the living hell out of my all-time favorite Gershwin, the I Got Rhythm variations. My God, he really was good and did things no other pianist ever thought of. The only word I can come up with to describe the sound is "bright", and I don't think it's just from a good piano. When you watch him perform in his dozen-or-so movies, often his hands are a blur.

So OK. . . I'm going to have to make jambalaya out of all the information I dredged out of those web sites. Since it took me all morning to cull out this stuff from maybe 150 different definitions of Levant, I reserve the right to blather my own comments when I feel like it.

Among many other things, Levant means:

1. soleil levant: rising sun

2. Levant: the Levant (??)

3. (n.) A levanter (the wind so called)

4. (n.) The countries washed by the eastern part of the Mediterranean and its contiguous waters

5. (n.) Rising or having risen from rest - said of cattle. See couchant and levant, under couchant.

To quote Oscar's close friend Dorothy Parker:

"For work is the province of cattle,
And rest's for a clam in a shell. . . "

I can't help but wonder why it is "said of cattle", but I guess I'll have to go along with it.

6. (a.) Eastern (Oriental: see the Gershwin ripoff Oriental Blues, which is perhaps a musical in-joke and sly reference to Levant)

7. (v.) To run away from one's debts; to decamp.

Well! Oscar, you shouldn't be doing that, but there was a little streak of lawlessness in him; it's why we loved him so.

8. (n.) Levanter: a strong easterly wind peculiar to the Mediterranean.

9. (n.) One who Levants, or decamps.

I wonder if Oscar ever Levanted in his lifetime.

10. (n.) Levantine: A native or inhabitant of the Levant

11. (n.) Of or pertaining to the Levant

OK, wtf is this all about? If Levant is a verb - to Levant, or not to Levant - how can it also be a person AND a place AND a thing?

12. (n.) A stout twilled silk fabric, formerly made in the Levant

And a tie.


13. Levant (n.) The countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Egypt

This may explain his heavy-lidded, olive-skinned, green-eyed, dishevelled, barely-shaved look that for some reason women went crazy for. The mediterranean look, even though his people were from the Ukraine.

14. Levant: a heavy, coarse-grained morocco leather often used in bookbinding. Also called Levant morocco.

How many people have a kind of leather named after them?

15. Levant: To leave hurriedly or in secret (possibly from Spanish leventar, el campo, to lift, break camp, from vulgar)

Why does this keep coming up?

(and, because Levant was such a hypochondriac, I will include the translation of just one of many, many, many, many sentences in French which include different shades of meaning of Levant):

Ce medecin conseillait a chacun d'entre nous, en se levant le matin, de dire ceci: aujourd'hui, je suis mieux qu'hier et moins bien que demain.

This doctor suggested that every one of us should say the following to ourselves, when we get up in the morning: today I feel better than I did yesterday but not as well as I will feel tomorrow.

Oh, that Oscar could have been so blessed.

(p. s. I also found confusing stuff that implied there was a place called Levant, or THE Levant, in the States, but I was unable to track it down. There is also a Levant sparrowhawk out in the desert somewhere. Geez. Bird, fabric, sunrise, leather, skipping out, rising up, a wind, a region, a whole state of mind.)

CODICIL. This is positively the LAST thing I'm ever going to post on Oscar Levant because now, even ***I*** am getting tired of the subject. But I just found a groovy caricature of him and had to post it:

I don't normally go for caricatures and think they're too grotesque to be funny, but this one captures him pretty well: the dishevelled hair, the pouty mouth, prominent ears, and eyes that are almost feminine in their limpid, long-lashed depths. Whoever did this must have actually looked at a picture of him or something.

Ripples n' Blues: the Gershwin version

Gershwin, eh? We've been a little obsessed with him lately, especially regarding his close connection with the polymath/Polly-wanna-cracker genius Oscar Levant. I apologize for all the blathering at the beginning of this live performance, but it's the best version I can find, and it includes orchestra which beefs it up nicely. Most of the amateur YouTube performances by young students are too slow and careful, too correct: "Is it ragtime yet?"

Yes, this connects with Gershwin, and his pal Oscar Levant must have played this at least once. It's a mere bagatelle, but charming. But wait until you play the next video! There's a surprise better than the sticky little thingamajig in the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.

Rialto Ripples, Oriental-style

When Ernie Kovacs, the mad genius of early TV, needed a theme song for his mad genius show, somebody did an arrangement of Gershwin's catchy piano piece Riato Ripples Rag (see last video), and retitled it Oriental Blues. Except for the goofy sound effects, the pieces are pretty much identical, so I don't know how they ever got away with it.

Everyone knows Gershwin wrote the original, but why was the Kovacs version called Oriental? Well! Out of some madness, I decided to see what the name Levant means "in English". It seemed sort-of French and I wondered what arcane meanings might pop up.

As it turned out, there were more than I could ever include, and they were getting stranger and stranger. But one of the meanings that kept popping up was "of the Orient," or. . . Oriental.

Levant was still around and fairly vigorous in the 1950s, when Kovacs reigned supreme. He was wasting himself on stupid quiz shows and making $45.50 a week, but surely he must have been aware of Kovacs and his insane brand of humor.  Did someone know and exploit the mystical connection between Levant and Oriental and Gershwin? Maybe it was just a coincidence, but there is nothing even vaguely oriental about this piece.

Then again, is there a Rialto, and why does it ripple? Am I just hallucinating again?

You decide.