Oren Levine is a man of many hats, both figuratively and literally, whose experiences span from mechanical engineering to digital media production. The Washington native took a day job working at a nongovernmental organization in July, but what he does wearing another hat is keeping him busy at night.
“Music is a big hat and it’s been much bigger since we moved back to Washington seven years ago,” Levine said last week in a Georgetown Starbucks, a block away from Bistrot Lepic, a French café where he performed later that night.
Levine, 53, develops and manages technology initiatives as the director of innovation at the International Center for Journalists, which trains journalists globally on new technology and best practices. But through a career spanning engineering, programming and digital media, music has been a constant. It’s an interest that’s accompanied him since childhood.
“In [my family’s] house, it was always a matter of which instrument you would play as opposed to whether you would play music,” said Levine.
While he’s never taken his musical endeavors full time, Levine has enthusiastically joined his hometown’s jazz scene. In the past several years, he’s also tried his hand at songwriting.
He recalled taking a music workshop in Vermont and getting into a discussion with a friend about rhubarb.
“I mentioned my wife hates [it], and said: ‘My wife doesn’t believe in rhubarb,’” said Levine. “My friend said: ‘Well, I believe in rhubarb.’ I thought that sounded like a song title.” And so “I believe in rhubarb” became one of Levine’s first originals.
Although he admits that title was one of his “sillier” songs, those with whom he performs have taken note of his songwriting.
Barbara Papendorp, a singer with whom he performs regularly, said she’s drawn to songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and enjoys Levine’s music because it brings a new influence to old favorites.
“He’s innovative insofar as writing songs that are new, but you feel like you’ve heard them before,” said Papendorp. She has been the first to perform some of his original songs which she said is a “gift and a challenge.
“It’s also very freeing because there is no comparing you to so-and-so,” said Papendorp.
“She interprets my songs really well so it’s a lot of fun to have her sing my songs,” said Levine.
The duo became a trio last week at Lepic, where they were joined by David Bamber, a recent Howard University graduate and bassist. Because Levine is an active songwriter, Bamber said, performing is “a greater experience because that’s within the spirit of the music. You’re supposed to create,” not just imitate.
He added, “It’s always fun to play with guys who are being creative.”
Levine’s father, an avid jazz fan and amateur trumpeter, kept his son’s childhood home filled with classical and jazz music, which became ingrained in him.
“But I was a typical American kid. I got through high school and started listening to the Top 40 like everyone else,” said Levine.
Having taken piano lessons from a young age, he decided as a teenager to try jazz piano, “foolishly thinking it would be easier than classical …, I was wrong.”
While classical piano involves interpreting written music on a page, jazz piano is largely improvised.
After graduating high school in Columbia and graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Levine lived in Boston and Israel among other places. He’s worked with the Public Broadcasting Service, Nokia and Trove, a news aggregation and social network site started by the Washington Post Co., which has since shut down — but always turning to music in his free time.
His wife got a job with the government, which is why he returned to Washington.
He describes Washington’s jazz scene as diverse, with an active community of all ages from teenagers and college graduates to veterans who’ve been around for years. He described his entry into the community as “a combination of opportunity and luck.”
Said Levine, “I went to some sessions and met some good people. We started playing regularly with people who I’d met years ago, and we’re still working together periodically.”