When I was working on my second book, Rhythm Planet: The Great World Music Makers (Rizzoli, 1998) and started to listen to my interview with tango giant Astor Piazzolla, I thought I was going to have to translate it from the Spanish. To my surprise, he spoke in perfect, unaccented American English. I then recalled that Piazzolla spent his first ten or so years in New York City.
There’s a terrific story about Piazzolla’s teenage years in the big apple. When superstar tango singer Carlos Gardel went to New York City to film “Tango on Broadway” in 1934, he needed a bandoneonista — a bandoneón player — and none were to be found locally. Then somebody mentioned a young kid, who turned out to be Astor Piazzolla.
According to Mariano Rodriguez of the Argentina’s Universidad del Salvador, “He [Astor] snuck into Gardel’s [hotel] room with his dad to meet the superstar, and played bandoneón for him. Not knowing a thing about tango yet, he played classical music and then tried a little bit of a tango. Gardel told him, ‘you are great with that thing, but stay away from the tango.’ A very lucky prediction, since Piazzolla was always detracted (sic) as an offense to classical tango by purists. Gardel gave the little Astor [13 years old at the time of Tango on Broadway] a small part as a newspaper boy in one of his films and then tried to take him on tour, but Astor’s father said no, which resulted in saving his life.” How so? Gardel’s plane crashed in a freak runway accident in Medéllin, Colombia, in 1935, when Gardel was only 45 years old and a matinée idol all over the world.
A mark of a great musician is that he or she can take a regional music–in this case tango from Buenos Aires–and make it a concert music around the world. If Astor Piazzolla, who reinvented and modernized the tango and brought it to the world, had toured and crashed with Gardel, tango might well be only a fading memory in Buenos Aires. Fortunately he stayed in New York, and tango is alive and well because of it.