Piazzolla: The Man and His Music – An American Life

Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992) is best known as the father of Tango Nuevo – a revolutionary new genre of tango which infuses elements of jazz and classical music. A talented and innovative musician as well as a composer, he became one of the foremost contributors to tango, spreading its sultry, melancholic rhythms and dance across the world.  In this blog series, we track his life and history in relation to his émigré background in America as a boy and then in Argentina later in his career in advance of performing his music at our CLoSer concert on 25 February

Italy – Argentina – New York… 

Born in 1921 in Mar del Plata near Buenos Aires, Argentina, Piazzolla’s family were émigrés of Italian background (all four grandparents were Italian immigrants who moved to Argentina). When he was 4, his family moved to New York’s Little Italy where he stayed for most of his youth, returning back to Argentina only briefly when the Great Depression hit the world in the 1930s. During these years, Astor Piazzolla learned English, Spanish, Italian and French.

Vicente Piazzolla and Asunta Mainetti
The Piazzollas. Taken from http://www.verytangostore.com/legends/astor-piazzolla.html

Living very close to Jewish community in New York and immersing himself as part of the Italian immigrant culture, Piazzolla used to earn some money extinguishing candles in a local synagogue. Later in life, he explained that the Jewish music had a profound influence on him:

“My rhythmic accents, 3-3-2, are similar to those of the Jewish popular music I heard at weddings.” – Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla learns the bandoneón

In 1929 his father bought 8-year-old Piazzolla a bandoneón (an Argentine version of the concertina). While he wasn’t too pleased with the gift to begin with, he clumsily tried to learn the instrument to please his Dad:

“My first bandoneon was a gift from my father… 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… 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.” – Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla as a boy. Taken from http://www.todotango.com/english/history/chronicle/112/The-friedship-between-Gardel-and-Piazzolla/

After some success playing the bandoneón on stage, Piazzolla took classes with musician Andres D’Aquila and when he was only 11, he wrote his first Tango song, La Catinga.

A love of classical music and jazz

Despite knowing tango through his father, the music he listened to most of all was the jazz music of figures like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway that was in vogue at the time in New York. Alongside his interest in jazz, he also got to know a great deal of classical music through his pianist and neighbour, Bela Wilda (a disciple of Rachmaninoff). As he was so immersed in the Italian immigrant cultures of Little Italy, the Argentinean tradition of tango was not important to him.

“In my head I had Bach and Schumann and Mozart and very little tango.” – Astor Piazzolla 

A new friendship

When he was 12, by a freak coincidence (and hilarious anecdote), Piazzolla met Carlos Gardel, a legendary Tango singer and musician, who used him as a bandoneón player in private gigs and as a translator (Gardel didn’t know much English).

Carlos Gardel

Gardel also offered Piazzolla the part of a newspaper boy in his movie El Dia Que me Quieras. His friendship with Gardel was monumental for the young Piazzolla, as it was partly Gardel who encouraged him to venture more into this Argentinean genre of music.

The young Piazzolla in Carlos Gardel’s El Dia Que Me Quireas

Look out for Part Two of this blog where we look at Piazzolla’s development when he returns to Argentina in 1937.

Join us on Wednesday 25 February as we perform a range of tango music from Piazzolla, Golijov and Bartok with live dancers and a FREE tango taster from 6.45pm. 

CLOSER: To and From Buenos Aires 
Wednesday 25 February 2015, 7:30pm
FREE tango taster from 6:45pm 
Village Underground, Shoreditch
Tickets £15 or £5 for students (pre-register at www.cls.co.uk/cls-fiver) available from Spitalfields Music Box Office or via phone on 020 7377 1362.

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