Le Grand Tango – an updated and expanded biography of Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla

Cover of the updated and expanded digital edition published by Astor & Lenox

 

When Astor Piazzolla died in 1992, he was not much appreciated in his native Argentina. The tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger, although well-known the world over, had stirred up a great deal of controversy with his music. The traditional tango world was still predominant in his home country at the time of his death twenty-five years ago, and he was a rebel. “He was hated because he broke a paradigm,” says María Susana Azzi, “and he changed that paradigm.”

Mrs Azzi is the co-author of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, a detailed biography that may represent the most comprehensive work about the composer’s life and work to date. Surprisingly, the book first appeared in the year 2000 in English, published as a hardcover edition (it was a few years before e-books became common) by Oxford University Press. It says a lot about Piazzolla’s reputation in Argentina that a Spanish edition was published only later after many translations into other languages had appeared.

The biography is based on a large number of interviews and other books about Piazzolla. Together with the late Simon Collier, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, it took Mrs Azzi seven years to collect and meticulously reconstruct details and events of Piazzolla’s complex life. It was Mr Collier who, not long after Piazzolla’s death, approached Mrs Azzi with the proposal for a biography. A British-born historian, Simon Collier’s prime academic focus was on Latin American studies and, in particular, Chilean political history. But it was his passion for tango that had led him to write a well-regarded biography of Carlos Gardel in 1986, in which he uncovered the intertwining of tango and the history of the city of Buenos Aires. His knowledge of tango turned him into a contributor to the tango history collection of Harlequin Records, for which he wrote twenty sleeve notes.

Simon Collier

Simon Collier

By the time Mr Collier came forward with his idea for a Piazzolla biography, Mrs Azzi had already established herself as one of the few academic experts on the subject of Argentine tango. She had published a respectable number of research papers and articles, and she had given numerous lectures on the topic. As a cultural anthropologist her main interest in tango lay in its socio-economic aspects. “Tango can be seen as a huge window into the social economics of Argentina,” she told me when I spoke with her earlier this summer.

Not long after she and Mr Collier began their research work for the Piazzolla biography, it became clear that Mrs Azzi would end up conducting the majority of the interviews. She worked with about a thousand informants and consultants on the subject of tango, and conducted two-hundred and thirty of the two-hundred and forty interviews for the book. In the end, the duo’s extensive research had to be condensed to three hundred and sixty pages, but they revealed an astonishing number of facts and little-known details about Piazzolla’s life, all of which contributed significantly to his groundbreaking work.

For a wonderful foreword Mrs Azzi interviewed Yo-Yo Ma, the world-famous cello player, widely known for his admiration of the grand tango master and who has performed and recorded many of his pieces. The book begins with a detailed chronicle of Piazzolla’s family, infused with anecdotes about his early childhood in Mar del Plata in the midst of a closely knit Italian-Argentine community, followed by his rough upbringing on New York’s Lower East Side after his parents had emigrated to the United States. Then there are descriptions of encounters with some of the most influential tango musicians of the Golden Era of Tango — Carlos Gardel among them — many of whom, intentionally or unintentionally, left an impact on young Astor. As a teenager, Piazzolla developed a strong interest in jazz and classical music, at the same time as slowly discovering the soul of tango. Encouraged by his composition teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, his passion for all three genres ultimately led him to develop his own modern tango style, which was demonstrated by three notable groups: the Octet (1955), the first Quintet (1960), and the Nonet (1971). By the mid-fifties he had taken tango to a whole new level and had begun to compose in a unique style. Now, also established as a sought-after bandoneonist in Argentina, he had played with some of the most important tango orchestras of the time, most notably with Anibal Troílo’s Orquesta Típica.

Azzi-small

María Susana Azzi

“He was,” says María Susana Azzi, “a musician and a genius who combined classical music and tango, which is difficult. But he didn’t think of himself as a genius.” By the time of his death at age seventy-one he had composed a vast body of three-thousand five-hundred pieces of music, including orchestral works (Concierto Para Bandoneon), pieces for solo classical guitar (Cinco Piezas), song-form compositions (Adíos Nonino), and music for film, and was considered one of the most prolific composers of all time. He was not a political person, but ‘an anti-Peronist’ adds María Susana Azzi.

The Argentine anthropologist seems to have become as intimate with Astor Piazzolla as some of his family and friends who knew him personally and closely during his lifetime. Just like Piazzolla, with whom she shares Italian roots, she considers herself a typical result of Argentine society. “Argentine society has always been a melting pot,” she says. “It is an inclusive and open society without ghettos.” Le Grand Tango, even though not an authorized biography, quickly became a recognized resource for Piazzolla fans. Mrs Azzi, who has during the course of her research, become close to the Piazzolla family, mainly his daughter Diana, says the family appreciates it.

Sadly, only three years after the book’s publication, Simon Collier passed away, leaving the rights to the book with Oxford University Press. When Mrs Azzi regained the rights to her book, a friend asked if she would consider publishing an updated version. This friend — Terence Clarke — happened to be a tango afficionado from San Francisco who had been introduced to Mrs Azzi in 2003 by the acclaimed tango singer and composer María Volonté. Mr Clarke is the co-founder and director of a new and small publishing-house, Astor & Lenox, whose mission is to ‘print and publish ebook editions of remarkable out-of-print books.’

Mrs Azzi agreed to a new version only to find out, as she told me, that “more than seventy people interviewed for the first edition have since died.” As a result, she undertook additional research for the new version. Most interesting about the new edition, now expanded by an additional one hundred pages, is that it reflects events that have contributed to the growth of Piazzolla’s influence since his death. “Piazzolla is greater than ever,” adds publisher Terence Clarke. “He is much more accepted than in 1992, and his popularity keeps growing.”

After a complete re-edit of the republication, Astor & Lenox published the anniversary digital edition last February — just in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Piazzolla’s death on July 4. Mr Clarke says that he is considering publishing a print edition. An expanded Spanish edition is also expected to come out soon.

The updated and expanded digital version of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla by María Susana Azzi, published by Astor & Lenox is available online.

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Ambassadors of Tango

Ambassadors of Tango

When Beatrice walked with Terence into the big foyer of San Francisco’s de Young Museum on a Friday evening earlier this summer, a hundred and fifty people were waiting in their chairs. Baffled, she turned towards the museum’s public programs director, Renée Baldocchi, and asked her: “They are waiting to watch us teach, right?”

“Yes, they are waiting for you to teach the lesson because they want to participate!” was Baldocchi’s response. For a moment, Bea gasped. This was far beyond what she had expected for their first tango lesson at the museum. What was supposed to be an experiment — teaching a beginners’ lesson of Argentine tango at one of San Francisco’s most prestigious museums — had triggered an unexpected and overwhelming response.

After taking a deep breath, Beatrice and Terence, both long-time tango dancers, got to work: they stepped onto the floor and invited people to join them. Their plan had been to simply teach the tango eight-step basic, not expecting that many of these first-time tango students would really be able to manage it. But at the end of the lesson almost everybody danced the basic eight-step, some actually quite well, others in some kind of… well, let’s call it ‘freestyle’. But best of all, all those one hundred and fifty people who had been waiting in their chairs, including children, stayed through the end, creating a happily whirling and twirling mass. “It was such a wonderful thing that everybody was out on the dance floor, old and young, and even children.” Beatrice raved. “It was a huge success!”

Beatrice Bowles and Terence Clarke consider themselves ‘Ambassadors of tango’. In real life, they are writers. Beatrice does audio recordings, the latest one being a children’s book with music titled The Girl Who Said NO! Terence is the author of nine books, the most recent a novel titled The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro. Both love dancing tango because, as they express it, “tango is a perfect balance for the mind and the body…with considerable soul thrown in.”

Beatrice&Terence

Ambassadors of tango: Beatrice Bowles and Terence Clarke have been bringing the hugely popular public milongas to the de Young for many years.

With the lesson ending, the actual big event of the night, the milonga with live music by San Francisco’s Trio Garufa, began. A sizeable number of the Bay Area’s Argentine tango community appeared and danced along with some of the newly converted dancers who had stayed after the previous tango lesson. Trio Garufa has been Beatrice’s and Terence’s orchestra of choice ever since they started organizing the free Argentine tango event at the de Young ten years ago. “Trio Garufa’s tango music speaks to people both in and outside of tango,” says Beatrice. “They keep getting better and better in tying people in.” After all, the actual mission of the tango night at the de Young is to get tango more attention — and a boost for the museum. “People get to see the priceless treasures of the museum,” she continues. “And many of them get exposed to Argentine tango for the first time.”

What seems like an odd mix has actually been a successful relationship right from the beginning. The tango event attracts people who otherwise would not come and see an exhibition at a museum. But when Beatrice and Terence initially approached the museum, they were not sure at all how their proposal for a tango event at the de Young would be received. They were prepared to encounter the same barriers they had first met at the Ferry Building where they were by now running a free tango event. “Our initial idea had been to bring a milonga to a public place,” explains Beatrice. Since she knew the people who ran the iconic Ferry Building, she and Terri asked them what they would think about a tango event. At first, the Ferry Building’s management was skeptical: how do food and wine and restaurants tie in with tango? Somehow the couple managed to convince them. And to their own surprise, the Friday night milonga was immediately a huge success. A lot of tango dancers showed up, and even though they didn’t consume any wine or much food, the people who run the Ferry Building understood that the event attracted a lot of attention to the place. It has been a regular annual event ever since.

Trio Garufa (003)

GIRL Tango (002)

Girls love tango too!

Next, being both museum lovers, they thought of a similar event at the de Young. They had carefully laid out their strategy of how to propose the idea over lunch to the then head of the museum, John Buchanan (who since has passed away). But already after Terri’s second sentence — ‘we are thinking of a tango event’ — Buchanan interrupted him with a full-hearted ‘yes!’

“He was a very open-minded person who understood that the museum could benefit from such a free public event,” says Beatrice. What made it a lot easier this time was the fact that the museum had a small budget making it possible to pay Trio Garufa as well as Terry for DJing. Not sure what turnout to expect, they were astonished that so many people showed up for the very first event. The magical combination of music and museum seemed to have worked. At some point Beatrice, who is a passionate photographer, went to the balcony upstairs and looked down at the crowd which, as she remembers it, looked like ‘a black-and-red peony’.

The combination of live music and dancing is apparently a festive and successful way of bringing people in. But organizing and promoting the event took a lot of work: for the first few years the couple printed flyers and handed them out wherever they went; they created e-mail lists; used social media; and did a lot of different PR. Now that word has spread, most of the PR is done by the de Young’s public program director, Renée Baldocchi, and by continuing word-of-mouth. “We’ve got the whole organizing pretty much under control by now,” explains Beatrice. But they don’t want to stop here. Their next project after the annual spring/summer event at the de Young and tango on Valentine’s Day at the Ferry Building, is to host tango on Thanksgiving Day at the de Young’s sister museum, The Legion of Honor. But that’s not the end of it by far: “We could also envision organizing tango at a museum in New York,” smiles Beatrice. “Or in Paris or in Venice! Who knows?”

Pictures courtesy of Beatrice Bowles.