Today is the birthday (1921) of Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla, Argentine tango composer, bandoneón player and band leader whose work revolutionized the traditional tango by incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. I can’t say that I am a fan because I have a deep purist streak in me, but I recognize his skills. Here’s a sample:
Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1921, the only child of Italian immigrant parents, Vicente “Nonino” Piazzolla and Asunta Manetti. His paternal grandfather, a sailor and fisherman named Pantaleo (later Pantaleón) Piazzolla, had immigrated to Mar del Plata from Trani, a seaport in the southeastern Italian region of Apulia, at the end of the 19th century. His mother was the daughter of two Italian immigrants from Lucca in Tuscany. In 1925 Astor Piazzolla moved with his family to Greenwich Village in New York City, which in those days was a violent neighborhood inhabited by a volatile mixture of gangsters and hard-working immigrants. His parents worked long hours and Piazzolla soon learned to take care of himself on the streets despite having a limp. At home he would listen to his father’s records of the tango orchestras of Carlos Gardel and Julio de Caro, and was also exposed to jazz and classical music, including Bach, from an early age. He began to play the bandoneón after his father spotted one in a New York pawn shop in 1929.
After their return to New York City from a brief visit to Mar del Plata in 1930, the family went to live in Little Italy in lower Manhattan, and in 1932 Piazzolla composed his first tango La catinga. The following year Piazzolla took music lessons with the Hungarian classical pianist Bela Wilda, a student of Rachmaninoff, who taught him to play Bach on his bandoneón. In 1934 he met Carlos Gardel, (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/tango-day/ ), and played a cameo role as a young paper boy in his movie El día que me quieras. Gardel invited Piazzolla to join him on his current tour. Much to Piazzolla’s dismay, his father decided that he was not old enough to go along. This early disappointment of not being allowed to join the tour proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it was on this tour that Gardel and his entire orchestra died in a plane crash in 1935. In 1936, he returned with his family to Mar del Plata, where he began to play in a variety of tango orchestras and around this time he discovered the music of Elvino Vardaro’s sextet on the radio. Vardaro’s novel interpretation of tango made a great impression on Piazzolla and years later he would become Piazzolla’s violinist in his Orquesta de Cuerdas and his First Quintet.
Inspired by Vardaro’s style of tango, and still only 17 years old, Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires in 1938 where, the following year, he realized a dream when he joined the orchestra of the bandoneónist Anibal Troilo, which would become one of the greatest tango orchestras of that time. Piazzolla was employed as a temporary replacement for Toto Rodríguez who was ill, but when Rodríguez returned to work Troilo decided to retain Piazzolla as a fourth bandoneónist. Apart from playing the bandoneón, Piazzolla also became Troilo’s arranger and would occasionally play the piano for him. By 1941 he was earning a good wage, enough to pay for music lessons with Alberto Ginastera, an eminent Argentine composer of classical music. It was the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who had advised him to study with Ginastera and delving into scores of Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, and others, Piazzolla rose early each morning to hear the Teatro Colón orchestra rehearse while continuing a grueling performance schedule in the tango clubs at night. During his five years of study with Ginastera he mastered orchestration, which he later considered to be one of his strong points. In 1943 he started piano lessons with the Argentine classical pianist Raúl Spivak, which continued for the next five years, and wrote his first classical works Preludio No. 1 for Violin and Piano and Suite for Strings and Harps. That same year he married his first wife, Dedé Wolff, an artist, with whom he had two children, Diana and Daniel.
As time went by Troilo began to fear that Piazzolla’s advanced musical ideas might undermine the style of his orchestra and make it less appealing to tango dancers. Tensions mounted between the two until, in 1944, Piazzolla announced his intention to leave Troilo and join Francisco Fiorentino’s orchestra. Piazzolla led Fiorentino’s orchestra until 1946 and made many recordings with him, including his first two instrumental tangos, La chiflada and Color de rosa.
In 1946 Piazzolla formed his Orquesta Típica, which, although having a similar formation to other tango orchestras of the day, gave him his first opportunity to experiment with his own approach to the orchestration and musical content of tango. That same year he composed, El Desbande, which he considered to be his first formal tango, and then began to compose musical scores for films, starting with Con los mismos colores in 1949 and Bólidos de acero in 1950, both films directed by Carlos Torres Ríos.
Having disbanded his first orchestra in 1950 he almost abandoned tango altogether as he continued to study Bartok and Stravinsky and orchestra direction with Hermann Scherchen. He spent a lot of time listening to jazz and searching for a musical style of his own beyond the realms of tango. He decided to drop the bandoneon and to dedicate himself to writing and to studying music. Between 1950 and 1954 he composed a series of works that began to develop his unique style: Para lucirse, Tanguango, Prepárense, Contrabajeando, Triunfal and Lo que vendrá.
At Ginastera’s urging, Piazzolla entered his classical composition Buenos Aires Symphony, in three movements, for the Fabian Sevitzky Award on August 16, 1953. The performance took place at the Law School in Buenos Aires with the symphony orchestra of Radio del Estado under the direction of Sevitzky himself. At the end of the concert a fight broke out among some members of the audience who were offended by the inclusion of two bandoneóns in a traditional symphony orchestra. In spite of this Piazzolla’s composition won a grant from the French government to study in Paris with the legendary French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau conservatory.
In 1954 he and his wife left their two children (Diana aged 11 and Daniel aged 10) behind with Piazzolla’s parents and traveled to Paris. At this stage in his life Piazzolla was tired of tango and at first, he tried to hide his tanguero past and his bandoneón compositions from Boulanger, thinking that his destiny lay in classical music. By way of introduction to his work, Piazzolla played her a number of his classically-inspired compositions but it was not until he finally played his tango Triunfal that she immediately congratulated him and encouraged him to pursue his career in tango, recognizing that this was where his true musical talent lay. This was to prove an historic encounter and a crossroad in Piazzolla’s career.
During his time with Boulanger he studied classical composition including counterpoint which was to play a key role in his later tango compositions. Before leaving Paris he heard, and was deeply impressed by, the octet of the American jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which was to give him the idea of forming his own octet on his return to Buenos Aires. At this time he composed and recorded a series of tangos with the String Orchestra of the Paris Opera and began to play the bandoneón while standing up, putting his right foot on a chair and the bellows of the instrument across his right thigh. Until that time bandoneónists played sitting down.
Back in Argentina, Piazzolla formed his Orquesta de Cuerdas (String Orchestra), which performed with the singer Jorge Sobral, and his Octeto Buenos Aires in 1955. With two bandoneóns (Piazzolla and Leopoldo Federico), two violins (Enrique Mario Francini and Hugo Baralis), double bass (Juan Vasallo), cello (José Bragato), piano (Atilio Stampone), and an electric guitar (Horacio Malvicino), his Octeto effectively broke the mould of the traditional orquesta típica and created a new sound akin to chamber music, without a singer and with jazz-like improvisations. This was to be a turning point in his career and a watershed in the history of tango. Piazzolla’s new approach to the tango, nuevo tango, made him a controversial figure in his native land both musically and politically. However, his music gained acceptance in Europe and North America, and his reworking of the tango was embraced by some liberal segments of Argentine society, who were pushing for political changes in parallel with his musical revolution.
In 1958 he disbanded both the Octeto and the String Orchestra and returned to New York City with his family where he struggled to make a living as a musician and arranger. Briefly forming his own group, the Jazz Tango Quintet with whom he made just two recordings, his attempts to blend jazz and tango were not successful. He received the news of the death of his father in October 1959 while performing with Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves in Puerto Rico and on his return to New York City a few days later, he asked to be left alone in his apartment and in less than an hour wrote his famous tango Adiós Nonino, in homage to his father.
Copes and Nieves packed out Club Flamboyan in San Juan, Puerto Rico with “Compañia Argentina Tangolandia”. Piazzolla was serving as the musical director. The tour continued in New York, Chicago and then Washington. The last show that the three of them did together was an appearance on CBS the only color TV channel in the USA on the Arthur Murray Show in April 1960.
Back in Buenos Aires later that year he put together the first, and perhaps most famous, of his quintets, the first Quinteto, initially made up of bandoneón (Piazzolla), piano (Jaime Gosis), violin (Simón Bajour), electric guitar (Horacio Malvicino ) and double bass (Kicho Díaz). Of the many ensembles that Piazzolla set up during his career it was the quintet formation which best expressed his approach to tango. In 1965 he released El Tango, an album for which he collaborated with the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. The recording featured his Quinteto together with an orchestra, the singer Edmundo Rivero and Luis Medina Castro reciting texts.
In 1967 he signed a five-year contract with the poet Horacio Ferrer with whom he composed the operetta María de Buenos Aires, with lyrics by Ferrer. The work was premiered in May 1968 with the singer Amelita Baltar in the title role and introduced a new style of tango, Tango Canción ( Song Tango). Soon after this he began a relationship with Baltar. The following year he wrote Balada para un loco with lyrics by Ferrer which was premiered at the First Iberoamerican Music Festival with Amelita Baltar and Piazzolla himself conducting the orchestra. Piazzolla was awarded second prize and the composition would prove to be his first popular success.
In 1970 Piazzolla returned to Paris where with Ferrer he wrote the oratorio El pueblo joven later premiered in Saarbrücken, Germany in 1971. On May 19, 1970 he gave a concert with his Quinteto at the Teatro Regina in Buenos Aires in which he premiered his composition Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas.
Back in Buenos Aires he founded his Conjunto 9 (aka Nonet), a chamber music formation, which was a realization of a dream for Piazzolla and for which he composed some of his most sophisticated music. He now put aside his first Quinteto and made several recordings with his new ensemble in Italy. Within a year the Conjunto 9 had run into financial problems and was dissolved and in 1972 he participated in his first concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, sharing the bill with other Tango orchestras.
After a period of great productivity as a composer, he suffered a heart attack in 1973 and that same year he moved to Italy where he began a series of recordings which would span a period of five years. The music publisher Aldo Pagani, a partner in Curci-Pagani Music, had offered Piazzolla a 15-year contract in Rome to record anything he could write. His famous album Libertango was recorded in Milan in May 1974 and later that year he separated from Amelita Baltar and in September recorded the album Summit (Reunión Cumbre) with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and an Italian orchestra, including jazz musicians such as bassist Pino Presti and drummer Tullio De Piscopo, in Milan. The album includes the composition Aire de Buenos Aires by Mulligan.
In 1975 he set up his Electronic Octet an octet made up of bandoneón, electric piano and/or acoustic piano, organ, guitar, electric bass, drums, synthesizer and violin, which was later replaced by a flute or saxophone. Later that year Aníbal Troilo died and Piazzolla composed the Suite Troileana in his memory, a work in four parts, which he recorded with the Conjunto Electronico. At this time Piazzolla started a collaboration with the singer Jose A. Trelles with whom he made a number of recordings.
In 1978 he formed his second Quintet, with which he would tour the world for 11 years, and would make him world-renowned. He also returned to writing chamber music and symphonic works.
During the period of Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, Piazzolla lived in Italy, but returned many times to Argentina, recorded there, and on at least one occasion had lunch with the dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. However, his relationship with the dictator might have been less than friendly, as recounted in Astor Piazzolla, A manera de memorias (a comprehensive collection of interviews, constituting a memoir).
In 1982 he recorded the album Oblivion with an orchestra in Italy for the film Enrico IV, directed by Marco Bellocchio, and in May 1982, in the middle of the Falklands War, he played in a concert at the Teatro Regina, Buenos Aires with the second Quinteto and the singer Roberto Goyeneche. That same year he wrote Le Grand Tango for cello and piano, dedicated to Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich which would be premiered by him in 1990 in New Orleans.
On 11 June 1983 he put on one of the best concerts of his life when he played a program of his music at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. For the occasion he regrouped the Conjunto 9 and played solo with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, directed by Pedro Ignacio Calderón. The program included his three-movement Concierto para bandoneón y orquesta and his 3 movement Concierto de Nacar.
On 4 July 1984 Piazzolla appeared with his Quinteto at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the world’s largest jazz festival, and on 29 September that same year they appeared with the Italian singer Milva at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris. His concert on 15 October 1984 at the Teatro Nazionale in Milan was recorded and released as the album Suite Punte del Este. At the end of that same year he performed in West-Berlin, and in theater Vredenburg in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, where VPRO-TV-director Theo Uittenbogaard recorded his Quinteto Tango Nuevo, playing, among other pieces, a very moving Adios Nonino, with as a backdrop – to Piazzolla’s great pleasure – the extremely zoomed-in “live”‘ projection of his bandoneon playing.
In 1988 he wrote music for the film Sur, and married the singer and television personality Laura Escalada on April 11. In May that year he recorded his album La Camorra in New York, a suite of three pieces, the last time he would record with the second Quinteto. During a tour of Japan with Milva he played at a concert at the Nakano Sun Plaza Hall in Tokyo on June 26, 1988 and that same year underwent a quadruple by-pass operation.
Early in 1989 he formed his Sexteto Nuevo Tango, his last ensemble, with two bandoneóns, piano, electric guitar, bass and cello. Together they gave a concert at the Club Italiano in Buenos Aires in April, a recording of which was issued under the title of Tres minutos con la realidad. Later he appeared with them at the Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires in the presence of the newly elected Argentine President Carlos Menem on Friday, June 9. This would be Piazzolla’s last concert in Argentina.
He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris on August 4, 1990, which left him in a coma, and died in Buenos Aires, just under two years later on July 4, 1992, without regaining consciousness.
Here’s a photo of a pizza I had for lunch in Buenos Aires some years ago (on this date, as it happens). It’s as eclectic as Piazzolla’s music – born also of the immense immigration of Italians to Buenos Aires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can make something similar. From the photo you will notice three things: the crust is thick and doughy, there is no tomato sauce, just mounds of cheese, and assorted ingredients are baked into the cheese. Styles vary considerably in Buenos Aires, but this is the norm. Sometimes you can find a thinner crust, but tomato sauce is very rare. If tomatoes are used at all they are sliced as a topping. But . . . absolutely anything goes as a topping. In famous pizzerias, such as Los Inmortales, they have set combinations (with fancy names), but usually customers just order what they want. Unlike U.S. pizzerias, they don’t have lists of available toppings; you ask for what you want and chances are they have them – artichoke hearts, langoustines, prosciutto . . . whatever. As in Italy, the discussion with the waiter can get long and involved if you are not careful. Best to keep questions to a minimum.
My wife used to make pizza dough, but I’m not much of a baker. I do make pizzas from time to time, but I buy the dough ready made. Here in Italy it’s available in a number of places. In the U.S. it’s easy enough to buy from your local pizzeria. Then it’s a question of the right equipment. Commercial pizza ovens are hotter than home ovens. Crank yours up to the highest temperature possible. I used to have a pizza stone which I kept in the oven all the time. This also simulates the evenly heated stone surface of a commercial oven. Have your oven well preheated with the stone in place if you have one. Otherwise use a greased baking sheet. Knead the dough a little and then stretch it out to form a circle (don’t roll it), on a wooden paddle, as thick or thin as you wish. Sprinkle lavishly with grated mozzarella, then add whatever toppings you want. Slide it into the oven on the paddle and bake. After 10 minutes, turn the pizza so that it cooks evenly. It’s finished when the bottom is golden when you lift it a little to peek.