LEVANT, OSCAR (1906–1972), U.S. composer, pianist, and actor. Levant was born in Pittsburgh, Penn., to Orthodox Russian parents. His father, a watchmaker, ran a jewelry store out of their home while his mother helped her four sons study music. Levant's talent for the piano was recognized early on. At 12, he went to see the Broadway show Ladies First, conducted by his uncle Oscar Radin and featuring pianist George *Gershwin. Inspired by the show, he began composing his own music. Levant dropped out of school and moved to New York, where he studied under Sigismund Stojowski and performed at nightclubs, speakeasies, and the Winter Garden Theater, where his brother Harry played. When Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue debuted in 1924, Levant learned the piece and became the first pianist other than Gershwin to record it. Levant convinced a friend to introduce him to Gershwin, which began a tumultuous friendship. Levant was insecure about his talent but was driven to best Gershwin; competition and mutual regard were the cornerstones of their connection. Levant went to England in 1926 to perform and record with saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft. In 1927, his part as a pianist in the Broadway show Burlesque landed him a part in the Hollywood adaptation, The Dance of Life (1929). In 1935 Levant returned to Hollywood to score films while studying under composer Arnold *Schoenberg. When Gershwin died in 1937, Levant was called upon to play Concert in F at the Hollywood Bowl for the Gershwin Memorial Concert. In 1938, he returned to New York, where he conducted the Broadway shows The Fabulous Invalid and The American Way. In 1940, he released his best-selling book A Smattering of Ignorance. He returned to acting in Rhythm on the River (1940), Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941), Rhapsody in Blue (1944), Humoresque (1947), and Romance on the High Seas (1948). He moved to Beverly Hills in 1947 and performed for President Harry S. Truman at the White House that year and in 1950. He played Concerto in F for An American in Paris (1951), but a hectic performance schedule and a resulting addiction to painkillers led to a heart attack in 1952. In 1958, his quick wit as a guest landed him his own television talk show, The Oscar Levant Show, but depression and a battle with Demerol took its toll and the show's popularity waned after two years. After appearances on The Jack Paar Show in 1961, Levant became a recluse.
Grove online; S. Kashner and N. Schoenberger, A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant (1994).
[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]
Levant, Oscar, American pianist and composer; b. Pittsburgh, Dec. 27, 1906; d. Beverly Hills, Aug. 14, 1972. He studied piano with Stojowski, and also took a few composition lessons with Schoenberg and Schillinger. As a pianist, he established himself by his authentic performances of Gershwin’s music; also emerged as a professional wit on the radio. He publ. a brilliant book, A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), and The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965). He wrote music of considerable complexity, in the modern vein, and was soloist in his Piano Concerto (NBC Sym. Orch., Feb. 17, 1942). Other works were Nocturne for Orch. (Los Angeles, April 14, 1937), String Quartet (1937), piano pieces, and film scores.
S. Kashner and N. Schoenberger, A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of O. L. (N.Y, 1994).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire