Astor Piazzolla

Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla was born on March 11, 1921 in Mar del Plata, Argentina, only child of Vicente “Nonino” Piazzolla and Asunta Mainetti. In 1925, the family relocates to New York City until 1936 with a brief return to Mar del Plata in 1930.

In 1929, when Astor is 8 years old, his father gives him his first bandoneon which he had bought at a pawn shop for 19 dollars. Astor studies the bandoneon for one year with Andrés DÁquila and he makes his first record, Marionette Spagnol; a phonograph disk (non commercial) at the Radio Recording Studio in New York on 11/30/1931.

In 1933 he studies with the Hungarian pianist Bela Wilda, disciple of Rachmaninov, and of whom Astor would later say “With him I learned to love Bach”. Shortly thereafter, he meets Carlos Gardel who becomes a good friend of the family and with whom he takes part in the movie “El Dia Que me Quieras”, playing a brief part as a newspaper boy. This feature film plays a monumental role in the history of Tango.

In 1936, he returns with the family to Mar del Plata, Argentina for good, where Astor begins to play in some tango orchestras. It is here that he makes his second grand discovery (after Bach with Bela Wilda), when he listens to Elvino Vardaro’s sextet on the radio, Elvino would later become Astor’s violinist. That alternative way of interpreting Tango deeply touches him and he becomes an admirer of Elvino. Astor’s love for Tango, and especially for that style of Tango, touches him deeply and gives him the courage to move to Buenos Aires in 1938. He was only 17 years old.

He plays on some second rate tango orchestras until 1939, when he realizes his dream of playing bandoneon within one of the greatest tango orchestras of that time; the Anibal Troilo orchestra. “Pichuco” was one of the best bandoneon players, and Astor always considered him one of his masters.

Astor feels the need to advance musically, and already being the arranger of the Troilo orchestra, he begins his musical studies with Alberto Ginastera in 1941, and later in 1943, he studies piano with Raúl Spivak. In 1942 he marries to Dedé Wolff and from this marriage he has two children: Diana in 1943 and Daniel in 1944. His works are too advanced for the time and Troilo edits them so as to not scare off dancers.

In 1943, he begins his “classical” works with the “Suite para Cuerdas y Arpas” and in 1944 he leaves Troilo’s orchestra to lead the orchestra which accompanies singer Francisco Fiorentino, he plays with Firoentino until 1946, when he forms his first orchestra, which is later dissolved in 1949. With this orchestra, with a similar formation to the other orchestras of the day, he begins to develop his creative impulses with his works and orchestrations with a big dynamic and harmonic content. That tango, of the young and daring director, more modern and different, begins to incite the first controversies among traditional tangueros.

In 1946 he composes, “El Desbande”, considered by Piazzolla as his first formal tango, and shortly thereafter he begins to compose musical scores for movies.

In 1949 he feels the need to disband the orchestra and part with the bandoneon, and almost abandons tango altogether. He searches for something else, a different destiny. He continues to study Bartok and Stravinsky, he studies orchestra direction with Herman Scherchen, he listens to lots of Jazz. His search for a style becomes obsessive, he longs for something that has nothing to do with tango. Everything was a mess and Astor decides to drop the bandoneon to dedicate himself to write and pursue his musical studies. He is 28 years old.

Between 1950 and 1954 he composes a series of works, clearly different from the conception of tango at the time, and that further define his unique style: Para lucirse, Tanguango, Prepárense, Contrabajeando, Triunfal, Lo que vendrá.

In 1953 he presents the work “Buenos Aires” (three symphonic pieces) – composed in 1951 – for the Fabien Sevitzky competition. Piazzolla wins the first prize and the work is performed at the Law School in Buenos Aires by the symphonic orchestra of “Radio del Estado” with the addition of two bandoneons and under the direction of Sevitzky himself. It is a full-blown scandal, at the end of the concert there is a generalized fist-fight due to the strong reaction of some members of the audience that consider it an indignity to include bandoneon in the “cult” setting of a symphonic orchestra.

One of the prizes he won at this composition contest was a scholarship from the French governement to study in Paris (where he goes in 1954), with Nadia Boulanger, considered the best educator in the world of music at the time. At first, Piazzolla tries to hide his tanguero past and his bandoneon work, thinking that his destiny is in classical music. This situation is quickly remedied when he opens his heart to Boulanger and he plays his tango “Triunfal” for her. From then on he receives a historic recommendation: “Astor, your classical pieces are well written, but the true Piazzolla is here, never leave it behind”

After this episode, Piazzolla returns to tango and to his instrument, the bandoneon. What was once a choice between the sophisticated music or tango, now would be sophisticated music and tango, but in the most efficient way: to work the structure of sophisticated music with the passion of the tango. In Paris, he composes and records a series of tangos with a string orchestra and he begins to play the bandoneon while standing up, he puts one leg on a chair, a trait that would characterize him on the music scene (Most bandoneonists play sitting down).

When Piazzolla returns to Argentina (1955) he continues with the strings orchestra and he also forms a group, the Octeto Buenos Aires, which is the beginning of the contemporary tango age. With a makeup of two bandoneons, two violins, double bass, cello, piano, and an electric guitar, he produces innovative works and interpretations which break away from classic tango, he breaks away from the original mold of an “orquesta tipica” and creates chamber music instead, music without a singer or any dancers. He continues his personal revolution and continues to generate hatred among the orthodox tangueros, becoming the target of very mean criticism. He does not sway and keeps going on the path which he more than ever deems his own, but the media and record labels make it an uphill battle. In 1958 he disbands the octet and the strings orchestra and he goes back to New York City to work as an arranger.

Between 1958 and 1960 he works in the US, where he experiments with Jazz-Tango with negative results and where, because of the death of his father in October 1959, he writes while in New York his famous, “Adiós Nonino”. Upon his return to Argentina, he creates the first of many famous quintets, playing New Tango (bandoneon, violin, bass, piano, and electric guitar). The quintet was Piazzolla’s most beloved formation; the musical synthesis that best expressed his ideas.

In 1963 he premieres under the direction of Paul Klecky: “Tres Tangos Sinfonicos” (Hirsch Prize) and in 1965 he makes two of his most important records: Piazzolla at the Philarmonic Hall New York, which has the works he played at a concert at the hall with the quintet in May 1965; and “El Tango”, of historical value, a product of his friendship with Jorge Luis Borges.

In 1966 he leaves Dedé Wolff. In 1968 he begins an extensive collaboration with the poet Horacio Ferrer, with whom he composes the “operita” Maria de Buenos Aires; beginning a new style: the tango song. Around that time he begins dating the singer Amelita Baltar.

In 1969, with Horacio Ferrer, he composes “Balada para un loco”, presented at the First Iberoamerican Music Festival, where he receives second place. This work turned out to be his first popular hit, premiered by Amelita Baltar with Piazzolla himself conducting the orchestra.

In 1970 he returns to Paris where, with Ferrer, he composes the oratorio “El Pueblo Joven”, the premiere of which was in Saarbuck, Germany in 1971. That same year he forms the Conjunto 9, acting in Buenos Aires and in Italy where they tape many shows for RAI. This group was like a dream for Piazzolla: the picture-perfect chamber music formation he had always wanted and for which he composed his most elaborate music, but the economic impossibility of keeping the group together led to its dissolution.

In 1972 he plays at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires for the first time, sharing the bill with other Tango orchestras. In 1973, after a period of great productivity as a composer, he suffers a heart attack which forces him to reduce his artistic activities.

That same year (1973) he decides to move to Italy where he begins a series of recordings which span 5 years, the most famous being “Libertango”, a work that is widely accepted in the European Community.

During these years he forms the “Conjunto Electronico”: an octet made up of bandoneon, electric piano and/or acoustic piano, organ, guitar and electric bass, drums, synthesizer and violin, which was later substituted for flute or saxophone. Later, in 1975 Jose A. Trelles is incorporated as a singer with a formation that alternates between Argentinean and European musicians. This group had nothing to do with the previous ones, and many considered this change as an approach to jazz-rock: but according to Piazzolla, “That was my music, it had more to do with tango than with rock”

In 1974 he separates from Amelita Baltar. That same year he records with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan a great record: Summit, with an Italian orchestra. The music that Piazzolla composes for this disc is characterized by the exquisite melody of the bandoneon and the saxophone on top of a rhythmic base. Aníbal Troilo dies in 1975 and Piazzolla composes the “Suite Troileana” in his memory, a work in four parts, which he records with the Conjunto Electronico, with A. Agri playing violin.

In 1976 he meets who would be his last wife, Laura Escalada. In December of the same year he plays an extraordinary concert at the Gran Rex theater in Buenos Aires, where he presents his work, “500 motivaciones”, written especially for the Conjunto Electronico. In 1977, he plays another memorable concert at the Olympia in Paris, with a similar formation as before, but with musicians with roots closer to rock. This is the last time he has an “electric” group. Piazzolla regrettably stops making reference to Chick Corea’s international sound and even though the Conjunto Electronico makes good music, he doesn’t consider it the real Piazzolla. In 1978, the second incarnation of the quintet is born, the one that would make Piazzolla world renowned. He also restarts his dedication to chamber music and symphonic works.

The next ten years are the best for Piazzolla as far as his popularity is concerned. He intensifies his concerts all over the world: Europe, South America, Japan, and the United States. During a period which lasts until 1990 he does a series of concerts mostly with the quintet, and also as a symphonic solo performer and as a chamber musician; and in his final years with his final group, the sextet, and with string quartets. There are many live recordings of the numerous concerts, many of them on CD. This in some way proves what is frequently said: Piazzolla’s music does not exist unless he plays it; him playing the music is a testament to the style, which we could define as the aesthetics of a musical state of mind.

In 1982 he writes “Le Grand Tango” for cello and piano, dedicated to Russian cellist, Mtislav Rostropovitch and premiered by him in 1990 in New Orleans. In June of 1983 he puts on one of the best shows of his life: he plays a program dedicated to his music at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the big scenario of classical music in Argentina. For the occasion he regroups the Conjunto 9 and he plays solo with the symphonic orchestra directed by Pedro I. Calderón, playing the beautiful “Concert for bandoneon and orchestra.”

In 1984 he plays with the singer Milva at the Bouffes du Nord and in Vienna with the quintet where he records a live album “Live in Wien.” In 1985 he is named an exceptional citizen of Buenos Aires and he premieres the concert for bandoneon and guitar : Homenaje a Lieja, under the direction of Leo Brouwer at the Fifth International Belgian Guitar Festival.

In 1986 he receives the Cesar prize in Paris for the score of the film “El exilio de Gardel” and with Gary Burton he records “Suite for Vibraphone and New Tango Quintet”, live at the Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland. In 1987 he records with the St. Luke’s orchestra directed by Lalo Schifrin, the “Concert for bandoneon” and “Three Tangos” for bandoneon and orchestra.

The concert which takes place in 1987 in New York’s Central Park in front of a massive audience, is a rejuvenating experience for Piazzolla. The city where he spent his childhood, where he became mesmerized by the music of Bach and Jazz, and where he failed in 1958, finally pays attention to his music. The records released in the US in the late 80s document his life: Tango Zero Hour, Tango Apasionado, La Camorra, Five tango Sensations (with the Kronos quartet), Piazzolla with Gary Burton, etc.

In 1988, a few months after recording what would be his final record with the quintet (La Camorra), he undergoes a quadruple bypass. Shortly thereafter, early in 1989, he froms what would be his last group: the New Tango Sextet of unusual characteristics: two bandoneons, piano, electric guitar, bass and cello. With this group, in June of 1989 he plays at the Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires in what would be his last concert in Argentina and he begins an extensive tour throughout the US, Germnay, England, and Holland.

Towards the end of 1989 he dissolves his group and continues playing solo with string quartets and symphonic orchestras. Until August 4, 1990, in Paris, when he suffers a stroke. After almost 2 years of suffering the consequences of this incident, he dies in Buenos Aires on July 4, 1992.

His opus, comprising more than 1000 works, a characteristic career and an undoubtedly Argentinian flavor, continues to influence the best musicians in the world of all generations. For example, the violinist Gidon Kremer, the cellist Yo-Yo-Ma, the Kronos Quartet, the pianists Emanuel Ax and Arthur Moreira Lima, the guitarist Al Di Meola, the Assad brothers, and numerous chamber music and symphonic orchestras. A career characterized by his aesthetic power and his unique style, almost in a league of its own. His music is unmatched; when we listen to it we are obligated to question the roots and say, “This is Piazzolla”. It is all about the “language” he created, which is unique and can be identified as his and only his. With hetergenous and rebellious elements (Jazz, classical music, experiments in sound) he produced a unique music under the drastic pulse of his Tango.

It's not hyperbole to say that Astor Piazzolla is the single most important figure in the history of tango, a towering giant whose shadow looms large over everything that preceded and followed him. Piazzolla's place in Argentina's greatest cultural export is roughly equivalent to that of Duke Ellington in jazz -- the genius composer who took an earthy, sensual, even disreputable folk music and elevated it into a sophisticated form of high art. But even more than Ellington, Piazzolla was also a virtuosic performer with a near-unparalleled mastery of his chosen instrument, the bandoneon, a large button accordion noted for its unwieldy size and difficult fingering system. In Piazzolla's hands, tango was no longer strictly a dance music; his compositions borrowed from jazz and classical forms, creating a whole new harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary made for the concert hall more than the ballroom (which was dubbed "nuevo tango"). Some of his devices could be downright experimental -- he wasn't afraid of dissonance or abrupt shifts in tempo and meter, and he often composed segmented pieces with hugely contrasting moods that interrupted the normal flow and demanded the audience's concentration. The complexity and ambition of Piazzolla's oeuvre brought him enormous international acclaim, particularly in Europe and Latin America, but it also earned him the lasting enmity of many tango purists, who attacked him mercilessly for his supposed abandonment of tradition (and even helped drive him out of the country for several years). But Piazzolla always stuck to his guns, and remained tango's foremost emissary to the world at large up until his death in 1992.

Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on March 11, 1921. His parents were poor Italian immigrants who moved to New York City in 1924, affording the young Piazzolla extensive exposure to jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. His father also played tango records by the early masters, especially the legendary vocalist/composer Carlos Gardel, and gave Astor a bandoneon for his ninth birthday. In addition to lessons on that instrument (which encompassed American music, like Gershwin, as well as tango), Piazzolla also studied with classical pianist Bela Wilda in 1933, becoming an ardent fan of Bach and Rachmaninoff. Around the same time, the budding prodigy met and played with Carlos Gardel, appearing as a newspaper boy in Gardel's watershed tango film El Dia que Me Quieras. The teenaged Piazzolla turned down an offer to tour South America with Gardel in 1935, a fortuitous decision that kept him out of the tragic plane crash that claimed Gardel's life.

In 1936, Piazzolla's family returned to Mar del Plata, and his passion for tango music was fired anew by violinist Elvino Vardaro's sextet. The still-teenaged Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires in 1938, seeking work as a musician. After about a year of dues-paying, he caught on with the widely renowned Anibal Troilo orchestra, where he spent several high-profile years. In the meantime, he continued his study of piano and music theory, counting future classical composer Alberto Ginastera (1941) and pianist Raul Spivak (1943) as his teachers. He began composing for Troilo during this period, although his more ambitious, classically influenced pieces were often edited for accessibility's sake. In 1944, Piazzolla left Troilo's group to become the orchestra leader behind singer Francisco Fiorentino; two years later, he formed his own group, playing mostly traditional tangos, yet already with hints of modernism. This group broke up in 1949, and Piazzolla, unsure of his musical direction, sought a way to leave tango behind for more refined pursuits. He studied Ravel, Bartók, and Stravinsky, also immersing himself in American jazz, and worked mostly on his compositional skills for a few years. His 1953 piece "Buenos Aires" caused a stir for its use of bandoneon in a classical orchestral setting.

In 1954, Piazzolla won a scholarship to study in Paris with the hugely influential Nadia Boulanger, who also taught Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones, among many others. Boulanger encouraged Piazzolla not to ignore tango, but to reinvigorate the form with his jazz and classical training. Piazzolla returned home in 1955 and immediately set the tango world on its ear, forming an octet that played tango as self-contained chamber music, rather than accompaniment for vocalists or dancers. The howls of protest from traditionalists continued unabated until 1958, when Piazzolla disbanded the group and went to New York City; there he worked as an arranger and experimented with a fusion of jazz and tango, also composing the famed "Adios Nonino," a lovely ode to his recently departed father.

Returning to Buenos Aires in 1960, Piazzolla formed his first quintet, the Quinteto Tango Nuevo, which would become the primary vehicle for his forward-looking vision. Over the course of the '60s, Piazzolla would refine and experiment heavily, pushing the formal structure of tango to its breaking point. In 1965, he made a record of his concert at New York's Philharmonic Hall, and also cut an album of poems by Jorge Luis Borges set to music. In 1967, Piazzolla struck a deal with poet Horacio Ferrer to collaborate exclusively with each other, resulting in the groundbreaking so-called "operita" +Maria de Buenos Aires, which was premiered by singer Amelita Baltar in 1968 (she would later become Piazzolla's second wife). Piazzolla and Ferrer next collaborated on a series of "tango-canciones" (tango songs) which produced his first genuine commercial hit, "Balada Para un Loco" ("Ballad of a Madman"). In addition to composing songs and more elaborate pieces for orchestra (such as 1970's El Pueblo Joven), Piazzolla also flexed his muscles scoring numerous films of the period.

The '70s started out well for Piazzolla, as an acclaimed European tour brought the opportunity to form a nine-piece group to play his music in especially lush fashion. However, all was not well. Argentina's government was taken over by a conservative military faction, and everything that Piazzolla symbolized -- modern refinement, an ostensible lack of respect for tradition -- suddenly became politically unwelcome. In 1973, Piazzolla suffered a heart attack, and after recovering, he decided that, with sentiments running high against him, it would be wiser for him to live in Italy. There he formed a group called the Conjunto Electronico, which placed bandoneon at the forefront of what was essentially, instrumentation-wise, an electric jazz ensemble; this period also produced one of his most celebrated compositions, "Libertango." In 1974, Piazzolla cut an album with jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan called Summit, with backing by Italian musicians; the following year, he found a new favorite vocal interpreter in Jose Angel Trelles. 1976 brought a major concert back in Buenos Aires, with the Conjunto Electronico premiering the piece "500 Motivaciones."

Tiring of electric music, Piazzolla formed a new quintet in 1978 and toured extensively all over the world, also composing new chamber and symphonic works in the meantime. His reputation grew steadily, making him a prime candidate for exposure in the U.S. during the world-music craze of the latter half of the '80s. In 1986, Piazzolla entered the studio with his quintet and American producer Kip Hanrahan and recorded what he considered the finest album of his career, Tango: Zero Hour. The same year, he played the Montreux Jazz Festival with vibraphonist Gary Burton, resulting in the live set Suite for Vibraphone and New Tango Quintet. The official follow-up to Tango: Zero Hour, The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night, won equally glowing reviews, and Piazzolla staged a major homecoming concert in New York's Central Park in 1987.

Unfortunately, at the height of his international fame (and belated celebration at home), Piazzolla's health began to fail him. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1988, but recovered well enough to mount an international tour in 1989, including what would be his final concert in Argentina. La Camorra, another excellent recording, was released in 1989, the same year Piazzolla formed a new sextet with an unheard-of two bandoneons. In 1990, he recorded a short album with modern-classical iconoclasts the Kronos Quartet, titled Five Tango Sensations. Sadly, not long afterward, Piazzolla suffered a stroke that left him unable to perform or compose. Almost two years later, on July 4, 1992, he died in his beloved Buenos Aires due to the lingering after-effects, leaving behind a monumental legacy as one of South America's greatest musical figures ever, and a major composer of the 20th century. ~ Steve Huey, All Music Guide

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