Tango has three things: beat, impact and nuances
was born on Cevallos and Victoria streets, because for me Hipólito Yrigoyen street goes on being Victoria street. I started playing the violin and later the piano, but first I was interested in jazz. I even played for long seasons at the old Select Lavalle cinema theater, back in 1923 or 1924. Cosentino was on sax. Afterwards I went on playing jazz with Verona, at the Real Cine and with us Lucio Demare was on piano. That boy was 20 then.
Later when silent movies were gone I already had a nice career. I still had time to play in the rondalla Cauvilla-Prim. There I was accompanied by Eugenio Nobile, a great violinist.
I always played tangos as well. Since I was 18. Around 1926 I played at the Paramount with Luisito Visca and Ángel D'Agostino. There I started to polish the style that later was distinctly mine, that one of highlighting the piano and the fourth string of the background played by Alfredo Mazzeo
The nickname Rey del compás (Rhythm King) was given to me at the Florida cabaret, the old Dancing Florida. There Osvaldo Fresedo played, while I performed at the Chantecler, which belonged to the same owners. Back around 1928 or 1930 I met the famous Príncipe Cubano (Cuban Prince), who was the show announcer. Julio Jorge Nelson was there, too. That happened when I replaced Fresedo at the Florida. The pianist was Howard. It was on those days that Príncipe Cubano had the idea of calling me Rey del Compás, because of the style I had.
Mine was always a tough orchestra, with a very swinging, much nervous, vibrant beat. And it was that way because tango, for me, has three things: beat, impact and nuances. An orchestra ought to have, above all, life. That is why mine lasted more than fifty years. And when the Prince gave me that title I thought that it was OK, that he was right.
Gardel worked with me at the Paramount, but he did not sing with my orchestra. He sang in duo with Razzano at the intervals. It was the time when I played jazz, with Verona. Later we performed again together at the Real Cine, always at the intervals. Although he never sang under my conduction, Gardel was sort of fan of mine and he usually came to see me at the cabarets where I was playing. I already have 42 years of cabaret! Take note if you want: Abdullah, Palais de Glace, Florida, Bambú, Marabú, Empire, Chantecler, Armenonville. All that in 42 years. Wonder how many night people I know!
Ours is a very tight orchestra: the guys have chops. We rehearse three or four times and then each one does what is to be done. I indicate them some corrections and the thing is settled. Sometimes the only necessary thing is that I add my mark, something that I very much care for, because going up is difficult but to keep your position is tougher. And I have been sixty years on this.
Today's life is another thing. Everything's changed. There is no comparison. Night life, for me, has disappeared. We were beginning to live only at four in the morning. And now at one, after the time people go out of the cinema, there's not a soul in the streets. It's terrible, that's the truth.
When Corrientes street was narrow we went out walking at five in the morning and the whole world was in the street. Theaters, cafés, restaurants, cabarets, everything was open and full of people. You were able to walk and you were greeted at each step you take. I miss all that.
In spite of all what I lived, I am a very common guy, as everybody is. I like to have a coffee and look how the dawn comes. Nothing else. Maybe I play a hand of truco to spend the time. And that is because in Buenos Aires there is no roulette. If there were any, I would be there all the time. Now, when I go up a stage I'm a different thing. Then I transform myself. That's my métier, I need to feel what I'm conducting, and also transmit to each musician what I'm feeling. At the cabarets you played all night through, people danced, had fun, they stayed till sunrise and the musician strained themselves of so much playing. There was no fixed time to leave. Today that is no longer existing and that hurts my heart. Now there are dancing parties, but that's not the same. At the most they have a little show.
Young people like me. They like my tangos because they are rhythmic, nervous up-tempos. Youth is after that: happiness, movement. If you play for them a melodic tango and out of beat, surely they won't like it. That's what happens. Now there are good musicians and great orchestras that think that what they play is tango. But it is not so. If they don't have timing there's no tango. They think they can make popular a new style and perhaps they can be lucky, but I keep on thinking that if there is no beat there is no tango. As professionals I have respect for them all. But what they dig is not tango. And if I'm wrong it means that it's more than fifty years that I'm wrong.
I don't think so, I think that my position is right. So, although I never went beyond Uruguay, my music is known in Europe, in Japan. I had a thousand offers to play abroad but to go there you had to go by plane and I by no means get up a plane. It's a trauma I have and for me, it's quite justified. In the year 1932 Carlitos Gardel and Leguisamo used to come to the Chantecler every night. They sat at a balcony upstairs and they waited until I finished. Then I went up to drink a glass of champagne with them. And we stayed hours talking.
One night Carlitos told me: "Look, Juancito, I think I'm gonna die on a plane". I answered him: "Stop that nonsense, don't say bullshit". But it was not nonsense. He forsaw it. For that reason I never wanted to get up an airplane. For example, I would have traveled to Japan if it were not for that trauma because the emperor Hirohito himself invited me, unlike the others that are taken by the impresarios.
Hirohito sent me a blank check so that I could write the amount I liked to go to Tokyo. I answered him that it was not a question of money but of planes. He sent me a message that I could travel by ship, but it would take about forty days. What do I do while looking at the sky and the sea for forty days? The emperor insisted: I sent a submarine for you and it would arrive in twenty-five. But I not even crazy would because if these Japs decided to enter into war I would be caught under water. That's why I didn't go. I think I would have liked it. This I'm telling you happened around 1957 or 1958.
For that I never wanted to go abroad. I don't consider Uruguay because even though I was born here I am half Uruguayan too. I was there for many years and I love the orientals(Uruguayans) very much. For 38 years I played in Carrasco and all throughout Uruguay.
I have millions of friends. One of them is general Perón (President, then, of Argentina). We know each other since the time when we went to the Luna Park stadium to see the fights of Prada with Gatica. Afterwards we met with the late Ismael Pace and with Lectoure (owners of the Luna Park boxing stadium), we ate a barbecue, drank some whiskies and played a hand of truco. I teamed-up with Borlenghi (Perón's minister of the interior). It's been more than twenty years that I am a friend of the general's.
I am a great optimist. A happy guy, a joker. I love to make jokes and the only thing I want is to go on with my orchestra even though I know I'm no longer a young boy, that I have to take care of my health and that I cannot spend so much energy as before. However, when I am on the stage, I always perform a show. And I don't do it because I'm a funny fellow. I do it because I feel tango like that. It's my way of being.
Out of modesty, I made its revival
Old tango, the one of the guardia vieja (old stream), had beat, nerve, strength and character. Our duty is to try that it does not lose anything of that. Because Argentine tango was forgotten it entered into a crisis some years ago. Out of modesty, I did all that was possible to make its revival possible. In my opinion, a good portion of guilt for the decline of tango corresponded to the singers. There was a time when a tango orchestra was nothing else but an excuse for the singer's showcasing. The musicians, including the leader, were nothing else but accompanists of an idol more or less popular. For me that cannot be.
Tango is also music, as it has already been said. I would add that it is essentially music. Consequently, you cannot place the orchestra that interprets it at the background to place the singer in the foreground. On the contrary, tango is for the orchestras and not for singers. The human voice is not, must not be a different thing, but an instrument more within the orchestra. To sacrifice all for the singer, for the idol, is a mistake. I reacted against that error that originated the tango crisis and placed the orchestra in the foreground and the singer in his place. Furthermore, I tried to bring back to tango its male emphasis that had been losing through its different stages. In my interpretations I put the rhythm, the nerve, the strength and the character that made it citizen of the music world and that it has been losing for the reasons aforementioned. Luckily, that crisis was temporary and today tango has sprung up again with the vitality of its best times. My greatest pride is to have contributed to the revival of our popular music.
Originally published in La Maga magazine, Wednesday January 13, 1993.
Director's Note: Juan D'Arienzo has the record of having issued 150 LP records and also of having sold 14 millions of discs of his version of the tango La cumparsita. The thoughts he states in this note are from interviews in January 1974, two years before his death, for the Siete Días magazine, and in 1969 for the Aquí Está magazine.