Once described as “the world’s most foremost composer of tango music,” Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla established nuevo tango (new tango), a blend of jazz, classical music, and tango.
Piazzolla was born on March 11, 1921 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. His parents were Italian immigrants Vicente ‘Nonino’ Piazzolla and Assunta Manetti. At birth, Piazzolla’s right leg was twisted due to polio and he underwent repeated operations until it was fixed, albeit one leg was slightly shorter than the other.
In 1925, the family moved to New York, where they lived until 1936. They first went to New Jersey, then Manhattan, near Little Italy. While the young Piazzolla adjusted well enough to American life, he was expelled from school for fighting and consequently earned the nickname ‘Lefty’ because of his left-hand punch.
It was around this time when he received his first bandoneon at age eight. He learned to play this instrument along with the piano. Initially, Piazzolla was not keen on the gift. In one interview, he said, “[My father] 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 let-down 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 1929, The Great Depression struck and the family moved back to Mar del Plata in 1936, only to return to New York nine months later. At 11, Piazzolla began playing his bandoneon on stage and started taking lessons with Andres D’Aquila, an Argentine pianist. He also made his first recording, ‘Marionette Spagnol,’ and composed his first tango, ‘La Catinga,’ which has never been recorded.
Piazzolla was introduced to jazz in New York, when he would sneak into clubs, where Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and other jazz icons would play. Meanwhile, it was pianist and neighbour Bela Wilda, who taught him the piano and introduced him to classical music. One of Piazzolla’s earliest and long-lasting influences was Johann Sebastian Bach. Wilda even taught him to play Bach on the bandoneon.
At age 12, Astor Piazzolla’s life would change. It was 1933 and he learned one of his idols Carlos Gardel was in town. Piazzolla went to Gardel’s building and what followed next was something straight out of a movie. Gardel’s assistant was outside and had left his key inside the room. Piazzolla volunteered to climb the fire escape and went in through the window to wake the sleeping Gardel. Turns out, it was lyricist Alfredo Le Pera. One thing led to another and the two became good friends. Piazzolla eventually became Gardel’s translator and his bandoneon player.
The Piazzolla’s moved back to Argentina in 1937 and the teenage Piazzolla immersed himself in tango. By the time he was 17, he moved to Buenos Aires and was invited to play the bandoneon in one of the most prestigious tango orchestras at the time, the Anibal Troilo Orquestra, and eventually became their arranger.
Piazzolla formed his own orchestra in 1946, the Astor Piazzolla Y Su Orchestra Tipica or commonly referred to as ‘The 1946 Band’. During this time, he composed his first “formal” tango, El Desbande as well as scores for films. In 1949, Piazzolla started in earnest his musical experiments, one of which, titled ‘Buenos Aires,’ was submitted to the Fabien Sevitzky Competition, where it won first prize. When the piece was performed by Sevitzky, however, it was met with negative reaction, with many complaining a bandoneon had no place in an orchestra.
Piazzolla travelled to France for his Paris Conservatory scholarship. Here, he played one of his tango-classical experiments, ‘Trifunal,’ for the great music educator Nadia Boulanger and she encouraged him to press on. And so, in 1955, tango nuevo was born with the formation of the group Octeto Buenos Aires. Even with growing criticism, Piazzolla carried on, touring the world with his unique blend of tango, jazz, and classical music. His favourite expression for tango nuevo was the bandoneon, violin, bass, piano, and electric guitar.
After a period of great productivity, Piazzolla had a heart attack in 1973. Shortly after, he moved to Milan, Italy and a year later he composed the infamous hit, ‘Libertango.’ This symbolised his break from classical tango to something new.
In 1985, he was named an exceptional citizen of Buenos Aires and in 1986, received the Cesar Prize for his score of the film ‘El Exilio de Gardel.’ One of his most well-known performances was in 1987 in Central Park in New York to a crowd of over 4,000. In 1990, Piazzolla suffered a massive stroke and two years later, the genius Tanguero died in Buenos Aires on July 4. He leaves behind more than 1,000 works and the legacy of having revolutionized tango forever.