Wednesday, October 11, 2006

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA March 11, 1921 - July 4, 1992

Memoir Cover of the English version of Piazzolla's Memoirs (Amadeus Press, 2001).

"I still can't believe that some pseudocritics continue to accuse me of having murdered tango. They have it backward. They should look at me as the saviour of tango. I performed plastic surgery on it."
- A.P.

"Piazzolla's tango has the eyes, the nose and the mouth of it's grandfather, the tango. The rest is Piazzolla."
- Ernesto Sábato

"Piazzolla forced us to study - all of us."
- Osvaldo Pugliese

Watching Astor at work, listening to his expression of the divine, you wouldn't naturally have pictured a fighter ("Lefty" because he packed a whallop); a scrambler from the mean streets of 1920's New York - among his boyhood friends: Mafiosi and Jake Lamotta ... who would sneak out at night to see Cab Calloway in Harlem. But that lad also went down to Macy's with Carlos Gardel, guiding the eternal icon of Argentine Tango around New York in the daytime and being his bandoneonist for a few months. (Astor's parents wouldn't let the 12-year-old go on tour with Carlitos ... the only reason he wasn't on that fateful flight out of Medellin (see Carlos Gardel).

Astor was the outsider. He was smallish. He had to prove himself to himself. One leg was shorter than the other - so he took tap-dance lessons and played baseball to show that he wasn't "different." He fought. He connived. He survived. And he taught himself to play the bandoneon.

"My first bandoneon 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 (from his barber shop). I didn't like it."

Newsboy Piazzolla (left, as a newsboy) in a classic still from El día que me quieras starring Carlos Gardel (third from left).

The book recounts the story of Astor bringing Gardel home for dinner; of other times spent with the legend while he lived and filmed in New York. Piazzolla had no idea who Gardel was in the larger world. (Neither did he later try to capitalize on the association, as doubtless other would have).

The first music Piazzolla played on the bandoneon was Bach. He felt more afinity for Gershwin and Stravinsky than for Villoldo or Canaro ... until as a teenager, now living back in Mar del Plata, he encountered in person and became influenced by Elvino Vardaro and Miguel Caló; then Troilo. (And he forever after spoke of his admiration for Alfredo Gobbi).

That he was a complicated, angry man and isolated all his life is no revelation; neither is it surprising to see his ego, sensitivity and emotion revealed. All of that is obvious in his music.

But it is a sweet relief to take away from this book the feeling that if you knew him personally, you would probably love him as much as you do his music. And in that loving, you would find it in your heart to overlook his maddening qualities, as one does with a good friend. One might just have liked to keep the relationship a little distant, that's all. (In my experience, many older Porteños in tango prefer that you do, anyway).

A former business manager is quoted as saying, "Who is Piazzolla? Onstage he is God; offstage a son of a bitch."

I liked this little book a lot. I am the kind of person that would also like to have a tome full of details to plow through (and the time for the plowing) - but no matter what is written about Piazzolla in the future, this volume is likely to stand with any as the definitive written portrait of the man.

The author, Natalio Gorin, had the access of a friend, the ear of a knowledgable fan and the eye of a journalist. He knew what should be revealed and found a way to do it. Piazzolla was taken from the project before its completion, so Groin had to finish it alone. This he did using portions of letters and his own writing, together with contributions from other Piazzolla friends. In this new edition the author has added to what was originally published in Spanish in 1990.

We follow Piazzolla from his beginnings as a poor boy in depression-era New York, to side-man then arranger in the Golden Age of Tango in Baires, to Rome and Paris in the era of jazz, jet travel, concerts, film and rock stars. The reader listens-in on Astor talking to a trusted friend about his music, his muse, his relationships: with his bandoneon, his musicians, teachers, influences, critics, friends and lovers. And the way he was, as a person and musician, from his own point of view.

"I talk to the bandoneons.That's why I swear that at one time El Gordo's fueye (Troilo's bandoneon) cried, 'Ay!' I think I hurt it. Maybe I banged a button with my finger. I play with violence; my bandoneon must sing and scream. I can't conceive of pastel tones in tango. I speak to him (the bandoneon) so he doesn't stand me up in the middle of a concert. Sometimes I beat him up."

Reading this Memoir, that most beautiful of aids to understanding, context, is drawn. You learn about his views on his work and recordings. You see the life of the Tango musician through his eyes; hear his thoughts about those who went before and who came after. He is candid about his recordings and his business dealings. He shares his triumphant feelings and his regrets. He owns up to his wicked practical jokes. He talks about the most inspired moments in his life, the happiest, lowest and the most touching. These insights make one feel closer to the music.

Even those who love tango tango but don't have much affection for Piazzolla would, I'm sure, enjoy reading the passages about his life in the Troilo Orquesta from 1939-45. They had a deep and abiding love for each other that is one of the most important relationships in the tango world (here is a nice picture and my restoration of their recording of "Para Lucirse").

After leaving Troilo's Orquesta, Piazzolla led a band for Fiorentino for a time, and worked as an arranger for Troilo, Fresedo, Basso and Francini-Pontier (who recorded first his composition Lo Que Vendra).

In the "language tango," it is interesting that, even while speaking Spanish, Astor often used an English word to find the way to say what he wanted to. Not only did this make the translator's job easier, it leads to more trust in the reader that things didn't get "lost" in the translation. This is the best (most comfortable) translation work from Spanish about tango I have ever read.

Here is a sample of Gorin's first-person writings:

"In Piazzolla's home in Punta del Este in March 1990 during a pause in our taping, listening to the piece (La camorra I), I asked Astor about a noise that comes out of his throat (his soul?). The cry is a rare mix of fatigue and ecstacy that can be heard clearly in the middle of a dazzling jam. He answered me with a characteristic line that reflected his pride and his joy for having reached such a musical level with the Quintet. 'I left my lungs in that recording,' he said. That was Piazzolla. That's the way he was until August 4, 1990."

And, Gorin reports, it is indeed true that Piazzolla said - not just a few times to his band behind closed doors - "Screw the people and let's play what we musicians like."

This book is no apologia for the scrappy kid who loved to let fly with that amazing left-hook of his.

Included are short remembrances by Horacio Ferrar (collaborator), Gary Burton, Atilio Talí (last manager), Anahí Carfi (last violinist to tour with Astor), and two of his favorite bandoneonistas: Leopoldo Federico and Roberto Di Fillipo.

Gary Burton: "As a jazz musician, I tend to compare Astor to a combination of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis ..." (!)

The book is nicely bound and laid-out in easily digestible chunks, with interesting photographs and a terrific Discography and Chronology. It is very reader-friendly.

Being an unabashed romantic, I have always had the wistful dream of being able to somehow be transported in time so that I could live for a while in Buenos Aires in, say, 1940. Each night would find me in a club with a different orquesta to dance to and have dinner with after. Caló, Pugliese, D'Arienzo, Di Sarli, Gobbi, Canaro, Tanturi, D'Agostino ... and Troilo. Sweet, generous El Gordo. And there on the bandstand, exchanging knowing, intimate glances with the great man, is the fresh-faced nineteen-year-old hell-raiser and upstart arranger, Astor Piazzolla. This book takes you a believable (if only fleeting) step closer to seeing yourself back there with them in your dreams.

While reading this book, with Astor's CD's playing in the room, I was transported. (Isn't that why we love books?) I feel even closer now to "it" - my tango.

A personal appreciation of Astor Piazzolla's music and recordings ...


Our thanks to the Publishers for their kind permission to quote passages from the book. You may purchase it on-line by following the link below.

Astor Piazzolla - A Memoir - by Natalio Gorin, Translated, annotated and expanded by Fernando Gonzalez, is published by AMADEUS PRESS. $22.95

ISBN 1-57467-067-0

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