Libertango Tango
Para lucirse Tango
Jorge Gutman

The friedship between Gardel and Piazzolla

uch is known about Astor Piazzolla’s life since the time he started his artistic career as bandoneon player in his hometown of Mar del Plata.

But there is a very important period in his childhood when he really shaped his spirit and his character, nurturing his knowledge and his musical tastes, that specially influenced the change of direction that years later Astor would take.

Even though his birth took place in the city of Mar del Plata on March 11, 1921, two years later with his parents he moved to New Jersey where they temporarily lived at the house of a relative of theirs who helped them financially until some time after his father, don Vicente (Nonino), got a job as barber in a New York neighborhood of Manhattan and rented a modest apartment on St. Marks Place, what today is the famous bohemian district of Village.

By that time it was a very poor area and had as neighbors, on one side, the neighboring district of the Italians and, on the other, the one of the populated Jewish community of New York.

In that environment Piazzolla was brought up. In those neighborhoods he first learnt what we first learn in life, listening and talking, not in Spanish but in English. He only spoke in Spanish with his parents at home.

The music he daily listened to was not tango but the jazz music that was in vogue then, the tunes written by George Gershwin or played by Cab Calloway. His friends at school or in the neighborhood were sons of Italian immigrants whose idiosyncrasy had nothing in common with Argentine traditions, with Buenos Aires and its outskirts.

He earned his first coins working at the near Jewish community. On Saturdays he put out the candles at a synagogue and helped at the cleaning of it.

From the Jews he learnt their music that he heard at the parties and weddings they held.

On his 9th birthday, even though Astor loved playing the harmonica, his father gave him a bandoneon. He began to study music with Andrés D’Aquila and later with the pianist Bela Wilda, who was disciple of the famous Rachmaninov. Up to that time there was a lot of music, but not a bit of tango.

When was the first appearance of the young Piazzolla in tango?
In 1934 Carlos Gardel arrived in New York, hired for the shooting of the movie El día que me quieras and fate made that he met a 13-year-old boy called Astor that was Argentine and also played bandoneon.

Astor himself tells us: «My relationship with Gardel was very brief. The only pleasure I had was appearing with him in some scenes of El día que me quieras —I played the role of a newspaper boy—, and backing him, on certain occasions, with the bandoneon that I was just beginning to study. To understand and love Gardel, you have to have stayed in Buenos Aires, to have visited the Mercado de Abasto, and I was only a thirteen-year-old kid that lived in New York. I did not even play well a tango piece on bandoneon. Because of that Gardel, when he heard me for the first time, told me: "Kid, you play bandoneon like a Spaniard!"». (From the book A manera de memorias, by Astor Piazzolla with the collaboration of Natalio Gorín, editorial Atlántida, 1990).

Gardel liked the Argentine kid who helped him to know the Italian quarter, especially the canteens, since the Zorzal was very fond of eating even though he cared much about putting on weight.

As well he helped him as translator, because Carlitos did not speak a word in English. On several occasions Astor’s mother had to cook those spicy ravioli that the idol tasted at the place of the Piazzollas.

«We became close friends. The truth is that I became his guide», Astor recalls.

When Gardel went out shopping the "kid" accompanied him. When he went to the "Paramount" studios for a shooting he also was with him. He was so pleased that he gave him a small gig as stunt. Hence that appearance in the role of a newspaper boy.

When the shooting finished, Gardel organized a party to which he invited a lot of Argentines and Uruguayans that lived in New York. So nothing was better than a barbecue with music and singer, as tradition says.

Nearing the end of the party, Carlitos asked the kid to accompany him on a tango tune with his bandoneon. And he textually told him: «Come on kid, get the music of “Arrabal amargo” and play it with all your guts». The barbecue attendants applauded like mad the Gardel-Piazzolla duo.

That was his first tango. At that precise moment he started to feel the taste of the Buenos Aires poetry.

Is there a better way of beginning to play tango music than backing Gardel himself? According to what Piazzolla himself commented, he had never been so nervous or in ecstasy like at that moment.

Soon thereafter, Gardel and his guitarists went to Hollywood to play. From there he sent a telegram to Astor inviting him to join his group. But neither his father, nor the musicians' union allowed him to travel, because he was a minor. Fate and Piazzolla's good luck walked along together on the same road. Would that kid have survived had he joined the outfit and had started to travel with them?

As you can see, it was Gardel who encouraged Piazzolla to venture into a kind of music almost unknown by the bandoneonist then. But even though the former influenced so that tango caught Piazzolla, that influence was not strong enough so as to keep him within the rules and codes that such music requires.

Because tango is mainly memory, a longing for the past, a return to what is beautiful of a youth gone-by. And those memories are the ones which influenced Piazzolla's spirit to musicalize his youth. That youth alien to Buenos Aires. That adolescence far removed from the neighborhood that Homero Manzi described, far from Pascual Contursi's percanta, from the Discepolo's café, from Celedonio Flores's Corrientes y Esmeralda or from Villoldo's porteñito. Nothing of that sort did Astor live in his young years and, because of that I think that at a time in his life he began to move away from tango, to symphonize his music, to blend the different musical streams that flow along his senses.

Astor Piazzolla internationalized the Argentine music. Probably up to the present there has not appeared an Argentine composer of his calibre. His work comprises 3000 compositions of which nearly 500 were recorded. Besides tango pieces like: “Adiós Nonino”, “Verano porteño”, “Para lucirse”, “Libertango”, “El desbande”, “Contrabajeando”, among others, he wrote the little opera “María de Buenos Aires”, sonatas like “Sonata nº 1 opus 7”, preludes like “Prelude in C sharp minor for violin and piano” and many compositions more, tinged of that neoclassical flavor that he learnt from Alberto Ginastera, his teacher and musical guide.

What would Gardel think of that young bandoneonist that he tried to make join his outfit and to shape him according to his style and his music?

Would Charlie —so Astor called him— agree with the style and the new way of interpreting tango invented by that kid?

Would Gardel accept that Piazzolla deviated so greatly from the classic danceable beat that he as well played when he joined the bandoneon section of the great Aníbal Troilo?

These are questions that nobody can answer.

Maybe the three men met high above, in Heaven, and Carlitos, with a hand on Pichuco's shoulder, would tell Astor smiling: «What have you done, kid? What a mess you've started!»