‘El Rey del Compas’ (‘King of the Beat’ or ‘Rhythm King’) was what they called Juan D’Arienzo back in the Golden Era of tango. According to D’Arienzo himself, it was the famous singer and composer Angel Sanchez Carreño, a.k.a ‘Principe Cubano’ (‘Cuban Prince’)
“The nickname Rey del Compás (Rhythm King) was given to me at the Florida cabaret, the old Dancing Florida. There Osvaldo Fresedo played, while I performed at the Chantecler, which belonged to the same owners. Back around 1928 or 1930 I met the famous Príncipe Cubano (Cuban Prince), who was the show announcer. Julio Jorge Nelson was there, too. That happened when I replaced Fresedo at the Florida. The pianist was Juan Carlos Howard. It was on those days that Príncipe Cubano had the idea of calling me Rey del Compás, because of the style I had.”
But before his rise to tango fame, D’Arienzo was actually interested in jazz as a young boy. He started playing the violin at 12, and later the piano. The eldest of three children, his younger siblings were also musically skilled. Ernani was a drummer and pianist, while Josephine a pianist and a soprano. Despite this, their father, Don Alberto D’Arienzo had many disagreements with young Juan about taking up law. Juan wanted to pursue music, his father wanted him to be the owner of a major agricultural production plant. However, his mother Amalia, encouraged Juan and sent him to the Mascagni Conservatory when Juan was 8 years old.
D’Arienzo started playing tango at 18 and by 1919, he was considered successful enough that the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre) took him in. He premiered with the Arata-Simari-Franco company, performing ‘El Cabaret Montmartre’, a comic play by Alberto Novión. D’Arienzo did not abandon his interest in jazz, though. Through the 1920s, the last few years of silent films, D’Arienzo played at theaters like Select Lavalle and the Real Cine.
In 1926, he returned to tango, playing at the Paramount with Luisito Visca and Angel D’Agostino. D’Arienzo says of the experience, “There I started to polish the style that later was distinctly mine, that one of highlighting the piano and the fourth string of the background played by Alfredo Mazzeo.”
The Golden Age of tango was from 1935 to 1955 and has been closely linked to D’Arienzo. While playing a new tango called ‘La Puñalada,’ the orchestra pianist Rodolfo Biagi recommends they change the 4/8 beat to a milonga of 2/4. D’Arienzo initially disagrees, but that night, he arrived late and found his orchestra playing the tango to this new style.
“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.”
D’Arienzo’s style caught the attention of the youth, which reinvigorated the tango scene.
“Young people like me. They like my tangos because they are rhythmic, nervous up-tempos. Youth are after that: happiness, movement. If you play for them a melodic tango and out of beat, they won’t like it,” said D’Arienzo.
D’Arienzo recorded more than 1,000 tangos, milongas and fast valses, and composed 46 tangos. He passed away on January 14, 1976 and is buried at the La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires.