Birth Name: Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla Artistry: Bandoneón player, director, composer Lived: 11 March 1921 - July 4 1992 Alias: El Tigre del Bandoneón (The Tiger of the Bandoneón)
Astor Piazzolla is best known for being the father and inventor of Tango Nuevo - a revolutionary new genre in which jazz rhythms and classical music were infused into tango. Tango Nuevo, at first, was strongly rejected in his home country Argentina, but eventually was appreciated and celebrated for the genius it was throughout the world.
The Formative Years
Astor Piazzolla was born March 1921 in Mar del Plata, a coastal village 420 kilometers South of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the only child of Vicente Piazzolla and Asunta Mainetti, of Italian background - all four grandparents were Italian immigrants who moved to Argentina. At birth, there is tragedy: his right leg is terribly twisted due to polio, and as an infant he undergoes repeated operations, until it is corrected, albeit with one leg slightly shorter than the other. This affects Astor's parents greatly, though in different ways. Astor's mother decides not to have more children; whereas his father, according to Astor:
Proposed that I should do everything forbidden to me, so that I would get ahead, not be a solitary person, a person with complexes. If they forbade me to swim, he ordered me to go swimming.
Vicente Piazzolla and Asunta Mainetti with Piazzolla
Vicente hears from friends that a good living can be made in America, so when he is 4, Astor's family moves to New York. They first go to New Jersey, and work on the railroads; then later during the infamous Prohibition they illegally carry alcohol across the border. They then move to Manhattan, near a densely Italian district termed Little Italy, near the largest Jewish community in the world. In fact Astor would earn small pocket money extinguishing candles in the local synagogue, and would later say that:
My rhythmic accents, 3-3-2, are similar to those of the Jewish popular music I heard at weddings.
Astor's father finds work as a barber, in a shop owned by a Sicilian man connected loosely with the Mafia, Nicola Scabuttiello. One day when Astor is attacked by a gang, a note is sent by Scabuttiello saying: "Never touch Piazzolla's son again". Astor remains untouched thereafter.
New York suites Astor and he adjusts reasonably well; he learns to speak English with the New York accent, which he retains for life. He also learns Spanish, French and Italian. However Astor has an aggressive and disruptive side, and is expelled from school for fighting: he gets the nickname Lefty because of his left handed punch.
In 1929, aged only 8, Astor Piazzolla's father spends $18 buying him a bandoneón, which is the Argentine version of the concertina (related to the accordion). Piazzolla says of this gift:
My first bandoneón was a gift from my father when I was eight years old. He brought it covered in a box, and I got very happy because I thought it was the roller skates I had asked for so many times. It was a letdown because instead of a pair of skates, I found an artifact I had never seen before in my life. Dad sat down, set it on my legs, and told me, 'Astor, this is the instrument of tango. I want you to learn it.' My first reaction was anger. Tango was that music he listened to almost every night after coming home from work. I didn't like it.
In another interview he says:
To give pleasure to the old man, I clumsily tried to learn, and I was dreadfully bad.
Here is Astor Piazzolla giving an interview on the bandoneón in later life:
Astor Piazzolla speaking on the bandoneón
1930 sees the Depression, and the Piazzollas return - briefly - to Mar del Plata in Argentina. For Astor this is a difficult time, as everything about him is strange to his school-friends, and he gets taunted - the foreign child attempting pidgin Spanish is someone to redicule. But Astor can pull a good punch, and soon the laughter stops. After nine months in Argentina, Vicente realizes the grass is not greener, and the family return to New York.
When he is 11, Astor has some moderate successes at playing the bandoneón on stage, and local newspapers of the day write impressive articles about him. He begins to take lessons with Andres D’Aquila. He also makes his first (non-commercial) recording, Marionette Spagnol, at the Radio Recording Studio. A year later, Astor composes his first tango, La Catinga, which has never been recorded.
Piazzolla rides the jazz scene in New York, huge at the time, sneaking into clubs (he was underage) where Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and other icons play. The pianist and neighbor, Bela Wilda who was a student of Rachmaninov, teaches Piazzolla the piano, and introduces him to classical music. Piazzolla becomes obsessed with Wilda's playing of Johann Sebastian Bach, which he would later term as a major influence; in fact Wilda teaches him to play Bach on the bandoneón. Astor would describe Wilda as his first great master:
We lived in a very long house and there, at the back, beyond a courtyard there was a window and, from there, the sound of a piano was heard. It hypnotized me, I stood still beside it. Later I came to know it was a piece by Bach and that the pianist practiced nine hours a day. He was Bela Wilda and soon he became my teacher. My father and I knocked at his door and when he opened it I was bewildered by his grand piano and the pack of Camel cigarettes he used to smoke. Once again the smells appeared but this time they attracted me and I thought how nice was growing up and being able to play piano and smoking cigarettes... Mom had no money and because she worked as a manicurist she agreed to care for his hands for free, of course, and twice a week bring him a dish of gnocchi or ravioli. My teacher loved pasta.
Piazzolla meets Gardel
They say timing is everything, and of course that is so true! It is 1933, Astor is now 12, when his father - who is a huge Carlos Gardel fan - realises that the icon is in town. Vicente has the crazy idea to make a wood carving to pay him tribute, and asks Astor to take it to Gardel. When Astor reaches the building where Gardel is living, who does he happen to run into, but Gardel's musical assistant Alberto Castellano, who is looking lost.
Castellano has a small disaster on his hands - a most fortuitous one for Astor! He has left his key inside the room; but our youthful Piazzolla volunteers to climb the fire escape into the penthouse, through a window, to wake the sleeping Gardel. Inside Astor mistakes the sleeping lyricist Alfredo Le Pera for Gardel and wakes him. Le Pera reacts aggressively until he realizes Astor is a boy and not a thief. Eventually, Gardel is found, who accepts the present and even gives him a signed photograph.
One thing leads to another - Gardel and the Piazzollas became good friends, enjoying the cuisine and Latin musicians that meet in the Piazzolla household, allowing Gardel to feel nostalgic for Argentina. Eventually Gardel, because of his poor English, hires Astor as his interpreter; and after seeing his musical ability, also uses him as a bandoneón player, though only in private functions. Piazzolla takes part in Gardel's movie El Dia Que me Quieras - who according to biographers was Gardel's favorite - playing a brief part as a newspaper boy, for $25. Piazzolla considers this movie monumental to his life.
El Dia Que me Quieras - Piazzolla far left, Carlos Gardel third from left
Gardel even offers Piazzolla to accompany him in his world tour as an assistant - but Astor's father refuses this given the fact that Astor is only a boy of 14. This is a very fortunate refusal, for Astor is replaced by Jose Corpas Moreno, who along with Gardel is killed in the plane crash of 1935, on this tour.
Of course tango is a major influence on our young Piazzolla, but one must be aware that he is much more multi-faceted than that. For example whilst in New York his father buys him boxing gloves and Astor decided he wants to be a boxer no less! But this "career" is sharply curtailed after losing in matches against friends Rocky Graziano and Jake La Motta. However what Piazzolla takes from this is a resilience to endure the hard and very critical world of music. In one of his interviews to the Guardian, Piazzolla said:
If you want to change the tango, you had better learn boxing, or some other martial art.
Return to the Fold
Whilst enjoying the life of New York, Astor's father yearns for the family to return - and so they do in 1937 to Mar de Plata, where Vicente opens a bar and a bicycle store. In Argentina the tango is by far the most popular music of the time, but Astor - who is now 16, feeling more American than Argentine - finds it hard to let go of his formative sounds, as he describes much later in an interview:
In my head I had Bach and Schumann and Mozart and very little tango.
However, despite misgivings, in fact Astor does immerse himself in tango, and even forms a quartet for a short while, called the Curteto Azul. During this time he falls in love with Elvino Vardaro’s sextet on the radio - Elvino would eventually become Astor’s violinist. A year later, Astor decides to move to Buenos Aires, to the big smoke, as it were, and try his luck. He lands some positions in orchestras for the next year or so, but without huge success; the orchestras do not achieve acclaim.
The Dream Comes True
1939 sees Astor's career take a leap to the stars. He he invited to play the bandoneón in one of the greatest tango orchestras of that time, the Anibal Troilo orchestra, eventually becoming their arranger. This orchestra was the band, when tango was leading everywhere in Argentina, a flourishing art form. Being in Troilo's band was a most prestigious post, and as Astor said:
I learned the tricks of the tangeros, those intuitive tricks that helped me later on. I couldn't define them technically; they are forms of playing, forms of feeling; it's something that comes from inside, spontaneously.
In an interesting twist to this arrangement, we are told that Troilo has to edit Astor's compositions as they are too advanced; they need to be brought back to Earth for the audience. It should also be said that Piazolla's genius is countered by accounts of his bitterness and arrogance; for example with regards to Troilo's orchestra, Astor would say that:
Three times he wanted to fire me because of things I had done in the cabaret.
In 1942 he marries Dedé Wolf. One of the interesting things Dedé finds out about Astor is that he sleepwalks. One time she is even woken by him thumping on her back; he is punching the air all around around him! In 1943 Astor and Dedé have a daughter Diana Irene and a son Daniel Hugo in 1945.
Astor Piazzolla and Dedé Wolf
In 1944 Astor leaves Troilo's band, and for the next two years he leads orchestras that accompany the famous singer Francisco Fiorentino. Thereafter he forms the Astor Piazzolla Y Su Orchestra Tipica - known as The 1946 Band - which he leads from 1946 to 1949. During the life of this orchestra, he composes his first "formal" tango El Desbande and also creates scores for movies. He introduces fugues, counterpoints, and eccentric harmonic forms into his music, which he would become world famous for. But for all that, he continues to be rejected by many of the public. As a result he decides to leave tango.
The Experimentation Begins
It is now 1949, and Astor is 28; he enters a period where he concentrates almost exclusively on classical music and jazz - genres which would drive him his entire life. During the next few years he composes works that are completely different in quality, style, method: they are Piazzolla finding his new universe of music. A beautiful example of this is Triunfal which has an odd yet lovely fusion of tango and classical.
Piazzolla submits his work titled Buenos Aires to a music competition named the Fabien Sevitzky Competition. The work, consisting of 3 separate pieces, is a hit with the judges and he wins first prize. As part of the award, the work is performed under the direction of Sevitzky himself. But as Piazzolla would find for much of his musical career, the reaction of the audience is negative; to the extent that a fight arises because the inclusion of the bandoneón is considered unworthy of a cultured orchestra.
Part and parcel of his award is a Paris Conservatory scholarship to study music in France with Nadia Boulanger - an influential French composer, conductor, music professor, and one of the most outstanding music educators of her day, who taught many of the most important composers and conductors of the 20th century.
Piazzolla and his family travel to Paris in 1954. Amazingly - truly! - When Astor begins to learn with Nadia Boulanger, he is so embarrassed with his non-classical tango past that he hides it from her. But finally he relents and he plays Triunfal for her (see above). She loves it! Piazzolla recounts the incident in his memoirs:
I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician. Finally I said, "I play in a night club." I didn't want to say cabaret. And she answered, "Night club, mais oui, but that is a cabaret, isn't it?" "Yes," I answered, and thought, "I'll hit this woman in the head with a radio..." It wasn't easy to lie to her.
She kept asking: "You say that you are not pianist. What instrument do you play, then?" And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneón player, because I thought, "Then she will throw me from the fourth floor." Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: "You idiot, that's Piazzolla!" And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds...
"Astor, your classical pieces are well written, but the true Piazzolla is here, never leave it behind".
This of course gives Astor the confidence and drive to pursue his passions, the tango and classical music - but now he combines them together in a most sophisticated manner.
Tango Nuevo is Born
The following year, in 1955, Astor return to Buenos Aires, where he forms an orchestra, which plays until 1958, called the Octeto Buenos Aires. This octet is a marked departure from the standard quintet; two bandoneóns (Astor Piazzolla and Leopoldo Federico), two violins (Enrico Mario Francini and Hugo Baralis), a double bass (Juan Vasallo), a cello (José Bragato), a piano (Atilio Stampone), and an electric guitar (Horacio Malvicino) - it marks the birth of Tango Nuevo! Unfortunately traditional tangueros despise the music and there is fierce criticism of the genre: a common quote that would follow Astor around is that "Piazzolla is not tango". Furthermore he is running short of funds; so to record he has to sign away all royalties. He is bitter on this point, as his monetary problems would continue whilst the coffers of the producers were filling as a result of the Octeto's recordings.
Octeto Buenos Aires
Natalio Gorin describes the Octeto Buenos Aires as having:
“Featured new rhytmic and sound effects, string counterpoint, a violin that sounded like a drum, the cello and the bass as low drums, formidable soloists, and an aggressive electric guitar improvising in most of the pieces... Some arrangements suggested disrespect... The hundred fans of the Octeto howled with pleasure wherever the group played... The rejection was to be expected, partially because of natural tendencies against anything new and because of traditional tango’s deep roots in the community.
1958 sees him going to the US, where his experimentation with Tango Nuevo continues in the form of infusing jazz, gaining world-wide acclaim in Europe, South America, Japan, and the United States. He also comes back to the quintet form of the tango, which will stay as his favorite expression for Tango Nuevo: the bandoneon, violin, bass, piano, and electric guitar.
In 1960, he returns to Buenos Aires; and his career continues to thrive for many years. He plays in magnificent venues, orchestras, and records a multitude of discs. However in the middle of this golden period, in 1966, he leaves his wife Dedé and begins dating the singer Amelita Baltar. In fact in 1969 she premiers his most popular hit Balada Para Un Loco in the First Iberoamerican Music Festival, where Astor receives second place.
Balada Para Un Loco - Astor Piazzolla and Amelita Baltar
Astor Piazzolla and Amelita Baltar
Piazzolla continues to record and compose over the next 10 years. In 1976, he performs in New York's Carnegie Hall, but rejects a three month offer to tour the US with some of the best jazz musicians of the time, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz. After separating from Amelita Baltar two years prior, he now marries his 3rd and last wife: Laura Escalada.
Piazzolla is now at the very pinnacle of his career: he tours all over the world, and continues to record - both live and in studio. In 1981 he performs in New York's Madison Square Garden to launch a new Spanish television channel, which is broadcast to 20 Spanish-speaking countries. In 1985 he is named an exceptional citizen of Buenos Aires and in 1986 he receives the Cesar Prize in Paris for the score of the film El exilio de Gardel.
Concert in Central Park
No, not Simon and Garfunkel but in fact Piazzolla himself! It is September 6, 1987, and the day is sprinkling with rain - Astor is now 66. He and his Quartet are performing an outdoor concert at New York's Central Park, on the Bandshell stage, to a crowd of over 4000. This concert is recorded and broadcast live by WNYC New York Radio, and is also sold on CD. On quartet are Pablo Zigler (piano), Fernando Suarez Paz (violin), Horacio Malvicino (electric guitar), Hector Console (contrabass) and Piazzolla (bandoneon). He has of course come back to where he started, he beloved New York, and he would regularly visit the US during the 1980s. His tango is unique for it is not to be danced to; only listened to at concert. During this time he is a prolific composer, producing over 50 CDs.
Hector Console, Astor Piazzolla, Horacio Malvicino
Fernando Suarez Paz, Pablo Zigler
The Grand Finale
In 1990 it is a sad end: Piazzolla suffers a massive stroke, which leaves him severely debilitated. Two years later Astor the beloved, the genius, the prodigy dies in Buenos Aires on July 4, 1992. He leaves behind more than 1000 works and is forever linked with the creation, development and the cultural infusion of Tango Nuevo.