Birth Name: Juan D'Arienzo Artistry: violinist, director, composer Lived: 14 December 1900 – 14 January 1976 Alias: El Rey del Compas (The King of the Beat) and El Grillio (The Little Cricket)
D’Arienzo's genius was in his simplicity, something he was criticized for. Yet the evidence was clear: the crowds would line up to fill his milongas, to the point that he almost single handedly made the tango popular for all the orchestras at the time. As Anibal Troilo said about him: “Laugh if you will... but without him, we’d all be out of work”.
Juan D'Arienzo is born on 14 December 1900 in the neighborhood of Congreso, Buenos Aires. His parents, Don Alberto D'Arienzo and Amalia Améndola, are of Italian background. He is the eldest of three children.
Throughout his youth and until his eventual success, Juan has angry disagreements with his father who wants him to study law, whereas our Juan wants to follow his love of music. In fact the Don is more than just a little disagreeable about the matter: he categorically rules out tango as being "without future", and wants his son to succeed him as the owner of a major agricultural production plant. But Juan would not hear of it, as even as a small child he enjoys music. Later he would reminisce, sadly, as being thought of a bit of a "loser" by the one he most loved.
Ironically, all the children are extremely musical: Juan plays the violin from the age of 12, his brother Ernani is a drummer and pianist, and sister Josephine is a pianist and a soprano. Their mother, unlike the Don, appreciates and encourages their musicality and sends them to the Mascagni Conservatory, where Juan starts when he was only 8. Later he goes to the Altiban-Piazzini Conservatory.
In later years, Juan D'Arienzo would go to the Cornelio Saavedra elementary school, and then el Nacional Mariano Moreno high school. He does well in both. He also does some work for his father, and is an excellent salesman, where he forges a good head for business.
Still only a teenager, Juan strikes up a conversation with a wonderful piano player, who is also a teenager of the same age. At that moment a friendship is forged for the life: the pianist is none other than Ángel Domingo D'Agostino, and they begin practicing together. An employment agency gives them an opportunity to play on Sunday afternoons at the Zoo - it is their debut into professional musicianship, with Juan on violin, Angel on piano and a third friend Carlos Bianchi on the flute. They call themselves Ases del Tango, and charge 4 pesos for performances alongside a puppet theatre. However the experience is a bitter one, as no payment is forthcoming!
Juan D'Arienzo, Angel D'Agostino and Ernesto Bianchi in 1912 in the Zoo
It is now 1917. Juan meets Carlos Posadas, a distinguished composer, violinist and orchestra director, and one of the greatest personalities of the Old Guard of tango. As a result, D'Arienzo begins working in the orchestra of the Teatro Avenida. Henceforth Posadas nurtures and mentors our Juan, so when Posadas dies - only a year later, aged 33 - this severely impacts D'Arienzo, who looks to him as true friend.
In 1919 he is considered so successful that he is recruited by the prestigious Teatro Nacional - the National Theatre. Later he would remember that debut as quite memorable, when on June 25 of that year he premiers in the Arata-Simari-Franco company. The performance is El Cabaret Montmartre, a comic play by Alberto Novión. D'Arienzo has the following to say about that experience in a later 1949 interview:
We, D'Agostino and I on the violin, we attended the opening night of the play by Alberto Novión El Cabaret Montmartre... We played in a small tango orchestra, led by us, which accompanied Los Undarias, a famous dance number formed by the partners and El Morocho Portuguesa, two canyengue tango stars.
During the 1920s D'Arienzo dabbles in other types of music, particularly jazz: he plays in La Jazz Select Lavalle and the very famous Orquesta de Nicolás Verona. He also performs in theater orchestras, to silent films, and even heads the opening of the 1927 Hindu Cinema. It is during these years that he earns his first nickname: he is considered such a mediocre violinist, with a shrill tone, that people begin calling him the unflattering name El Grillo (or El Grillito) - Little Cricket! Luckily for our Juan, this alias disappears after some time. He also earns considerable fame when he performs on the new El Mundo radio station.
He only returns to tango in 1926, where he plays his violin in La Orquesta Típica Paramount to the film of the same name.
The first orchestra he forms, in 1928, consists of Alfredo Mazzeo, Luis Cuervo and himself on violins; Ciriaco Ortiz, Nicolás Premian and Florentino Octaviano on bandoneon; Vicente Gorrese on piano; Juan Carlos Puglisi on bass; and Carlos Dante as vocalist.
The birth of the Golden Era
There are many who consider that the Golden Era of tango is inextricably linked with Juan D'Arienzo, a no small feat indeed. The story goes like this: it is 1935 (putting our Juan at 35 years old) and the composer Pintin Castellanos brings a new tango to D’Arienzo called La Puñalada. The orchestra - with its new pianist Rodolfo Biagi - recommends to change its beat from 4/8 to that of a milonga in 2/4. At first the maestro D'Arienzo disagrees: he does not allow any divergent style, not any change in rhythm. But on this night, D'Arienzo is late and the orchestra begins to play alone - and what occurs next is nothing but phenomenal: the music is an instant, unmistakable hit! we are told that on:
July 9, the public danced with such gusto that when the crowd, shouting and clapping, asked D'Arienzo to continue with that new style, the director had no other choice but to play it all night.
It is said that D’Arienzo returned tango to the tango dancers! In so doing, he got the interest of the youth, which not only reinvigorated the entire tango scene, but made it chic as well. At that point, of course, not only did our Juan became a celebrity, but he also started making his fortune. For example: much later, in 1950, when D’Arienzo re-records the milonga La Puñalada at a faster version, it would be the first million-seller tango ever.
La Puñalada by Juan D’Arienzo
D'Arienzo also records his first albums on the RCA Victor label, in 1935: the vals Desde El Alma, as well as Hotel Victoria.
Desde El Alma by Juan D’Arienzo
Hotel Victoria by Juan D’Arienzo
D'Arienzo's Tipica Orchestra infuses an eclectic, beautiful beat that is at perfect harmony with the dancers of the time. It becomes enormously successful; the El Mundo radio station broadcasts the orchestra's sound all over the country, spawning the tango renaissance of La Década Del Cuarenta. It is embraced to such an extent by the crowds that for the next two decades it sets the standards for other orchestras and musicians, forcing many of them to alter their style.
After 1938, when Biagi goes on to create his own orchestra, D'Arienzo's forces his replacement Fulvio Salamanca to replicate Biagi's style, in order to provide continuity of success. At this point D'Arienzo is acclaimed as lord and king of the Buenos Aires night. As even he himself says:
With me one hundred thousand tango orchestras and neighborhood clubs flourished.
And much later:
I've got the taste of the people, interpreting their feelings. And being one of the people is very difficult. Anybody can be famous without being one them. Identifying with the mass is very complex.
Juan D'Arienzo and his orchestra
Juan D'Arienzo leading a pit orchestra
But what is is about that orchestra style so often spoken about, admired, loved? The first element is the quintessential piano of Rodolfo Biagi: hard rhythm, uniformly stressing four beats in each bar, and filling any gaps of the melody. Next the violin: preferably performed solo, and highlighting serious changes in the bandoneon staccato, extremely fast.
Young people like me. They like my tangos because they are rhythmic, nervous up-tempos. Youth is after that: happiness, movement. If you play for them a melodic tango and out of beat, surely they won't like it. That's what happens. Now there are good musicians and great orchestras that think that what they play is tango. But it is not so. If they don't have timing there's no tango. They think they can make popular a new style and perhaps they can be lucky, but I keep on thinking that if there is no beat there is no tango. As professionals I have respect for them all. But what they dig is not tango. And if I'm wrong it means that it's more than fifty years that I'm wrong.
D'Arienzo's orchestra was based on five violins, bases, five bandoneons, cantors and the piano. He rarely played with a smaller orchestra and often performed with a much larger one.
Luis Adolfo Sierra, in The Evolution of Instrumental Tango, 1966, describes it thus:
And the phenomenon of the resurrection of the tango dance was the the result of a main character who created a mode of interpretation of a style: Juan D'Arienzo... That is, a rigid marking, cutting, accelerated, relentless movement in contrast to 'staccato' and silences, with frequent passages of piano emphasized strongly in the right hand, the subject of a melody or counter melody on the same form of execution... technically simple, but enhanced by a remarkable instrumental play.
D'Arienzo's directing style was also highly unorthodox: acrobatic; humorous on stage; going close up to the orchestra musicians, and imploring them to be more lively, almost egging them on. His, as they say, is the 'camp' style of directing; a most amusing thing to see on some of his vintage videos.
Loca by Juan D’Arienzo
When I direct I am justifiably natural. And I transform. As I direct I take what I feel. Simultaneously I pass on my feelings to the musicians and they, to the public... Before I directed with the baton, now with my own hands: they are more expressive.
The author of www.tangoandchaos.org describes it beautifully:
Have you ever seen the old black and white TV tapes of D'Arienzo in front of his band? He hunches, jumps, laughs demonically, makes faces, and just goes nuts... he makes Mick Jagger look like Prince Charles with a stick up his butt. He hovers over the front row of bandoneon players like a mad elf, and you can tell he's embarrassing them. The band kind of grins, and looks at each other. “There he goes again. Why can't he settle down?” I mentioned Mick Jagger, but there is a difference, because Mick is trying hard to look cool—but D'Arienzo is being a fool, and he just can't help it. He’s completely goofy. He knows how he looks, but he's so drunk on his own rhythms and clowning around that there's nothing else he can do. He is shaking like a dog to the vibrations of his own music. I've heard people apologize for his behavior, and try to explain it away, but this is wrong, wrong, wrong.
D'Arienzo said about his style:
Do not think that this is just for the public to see - it is used as a defence by me. I use it well. A look implies a mistake by someone, something that is not played well. They are used by me as a course when I see a loose element, or someone is distracted. I encourage and demand that you be aware, and encourage you with enthusiasm.
D'Arienzo directing to the faces of the musicians
El Rey del Compas
It is during this time, in 1937, that his alter-ego nickname is formed: El Rey del Compas - The King of the Beat. The author of that alias is Ángel Sánchez Carreño, aka The Cuban Prince, the leader of the Chantecler cabaret. The alias is spoken on radio, cleverly, and from then on it sticks.
Juan D'Arienzo - orchestra at the Chantecler 1937
D'Arienzo's success is easily brought to light just by examining the Buenos Aires Carnaval that Radio El Mundo held in 1940 (noting that there was no television at this stage); in its poster Juan D'Arienzo (top, far right) is held as one of the 4 major stars!
During this time, what emerges is the estribillista - in which singers perform one stanza or chorus in the middle of a song. D'Arienzo's orchestra is one of the first bands that has in its ranks a cantor estribillista or refrain singer. The Uruguayan singer Walter Cabral was one of the first such singers that recorded with the orchestra of Juan D'Arienzo.
The orchestra of Juan D'Arienzo, in its many incarnations, made recordings from 1928 to 1975 - an incredible 47 years! In chronological order, the cantor estribillista used in the orchestra were:
Vicente 'Tito' Falivene (Héctor Mauré)
Juan Carlos Lamas
Alfredo De Angelis, Angel D'Agostino and Juan D'Arienzo
The piece d' resistance, if you like, of D'Arienzo's orchestra is marked by the piano, for it is this that gave the unique musical rhythm. In is interesting to note that the pianists in D'Arienzo's orchestra were, in chronological order:
Juan Carlos Howard
Alfonso Ramiro Lacueva
John Polito (again)
Despite his great international reputation, and the fact that D'Arienzo would be constantly sought to perform in other countries, he never performed other than in Uruguay. The reason? In the words of D'Arienzo:
One night Carlitos told me: "Look, Juancito, I think I'm gonna die on a plane". I answered him: "Stop that nonsense, don't say bullshit". But it was not nonsense. He foresaw it. For that reason I never wanted to get up an airplane... After what happened to Gardel, I have fear of the plane!
He told us that Emperor Hirohito, who was a great tango music lover, sent him through the Japanese embassy a blank check for himself and his orchestra to play at Japan. As he answered no, due to his fear of flying, the emperor requested him to travel by boat. But as in those days the journey was 40 days, he again refused. Even when the Emperor commandeered a submarine for this, D'Arienzo refused lest Japan will enter another war.
In His Own Words
D'Arienzo, in a moment of self-reflection, had this to say on his music:
In my point of view, tango is, above all, rhythm, nerve, strength and character. Early tango, that of the old stream (guardia vieja), had all that, and we must try not to ever lose it. Because we forgot that, Argentine tango entered into a crisis some years ago. Putting aside modesty, I did all was possible to make it reappear. In my opinion, a good part of the blame for tango decline is on the singers. There was a time when a tango orchestra was nothing else but a mere pretext for featuring the singer.
The players, including the leader, were no more than accompanists of a somewhat popular star. For me, that can´t be.
Tango is also music, as is already said. I would add that is essentially music. In consequence, the orchestra, which plays it, cannot be relegated to the background to spotlight only the singer.
On the contrary, it is for the orchestras and not for the singers.
The human voice is not, and should not be any other thing than an instrument in the orchestra. To sacrifice everything for the singer´s sake, for the star, is a mistake. I reacted against that mistake which caused the tango crisis and placed the orchestra in the foreground and the singer in his place. Furthermore, I tried to rescue for tango its masculine strength, which it had been losing through successive circumstances. In that way in my interpretations I stamped the rhythm, the nerve, the strength and the character which distinguished it in the music world and which it had been losing for the above reasons. Luckily, that crisis was temporary, and today tango has been re-established, our tango, with the vitality of its best times. My major pride is to have contributed to that renaissance of our popular music.
In 1937 there were gentlemen directors in the lineup: Osvaldo Fresedo, Julio de Caro; but the tango was completely un-memorable. Then I played at a different beat and returned to the place it deserved.
In 1975 he said:
The foundation of my orchestra is the piano. I regard it as irreplaceable. When my pianist, Polito is ill, I replace him with Jorge Dragone. If something happens to the latter I´m at a loss. Then the fourth violin appears as an essential element. It must sound like a viola or a cello. I assemble my group with piano, double bass, five violins, five bandoneons and three singers. Less members, never. I had even used, for some recordings, up to ten violins....
If the musicians return to the purity of 2/4, it will revive the enthusiasm for our music and, thanks to modern means of dissemination, we will reach global importance.
In a magazine interview he said:
Mine was always a tough orchestra, with a very swinging, much nervous, vibrant beat. And it was that way because tango, for me, has three things: beat, impact and nuances. An orchestra ought to have, above all, life. That is why mine lasted more than fifty years. And when the Prince gave me that title I thought that it was OK, that he was right.
He died a month after that quote, and is buried in Cementerio de la Chacarita.
Among his many compositions, some of the best titles are considered the following:
Nueve de Julio
Él Vino Triste
No Nos Veremos Nunca
Ya lo Ves
Remembranzas by Juan D’Arienzo
D'Arienzo's rendition of La Cumparsita,. which he recorded no less than 8 separate times, sold more than 14 million copies! It was recorded in 1928, 1929, 1937, 1943, 1951, 1963, and 1971. The 1951 version is considered the best:
La Cumparsita - 1951 by Juan D’Arienzo
Juan D'Arienzo was involved in the following films, either as actor or composer: