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A Gauchito for Carlos Gardel

In contemporary Argentine tango music, there is “Before Astor” and “After Astor”.

Astor Piazzolla (a master of the bandoneón, the concertina-like instrument that many consider the soul of tango) revolutionized the genre in ways that either electrified his numberless fans (most of them outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is the home of tango) or infuriated his many detractors (most of them inside Buenos Aires). He once remarked how dismaying it was to him to be able to fill every seat at a theater like the Olympia in Paris, while barely thirty people – and many of them loudly hostile -- would come to see him in a club in Buenos Aires.

Astor Piazzolla

Astor brought into tango many elements of quite sophisticated classical music that it had never heard before. Fugue, counterpoint, extraordinary polyrhythms and dissonances that few of the usual tango musicians in Buenos Aires -- fine as surely they were -- could even comprehend. Indeed Astor spoke of his own compositions as “music based on tango”, rather than as tango itself, and this is a fair judgment. Those who complain that Astor’s music is not tango are right, in the sense that he was never a tango traditionalist.

But woe betide the tango fan who does not understand the importance of traditional tango to Astor’s work. Astor was, after all, the principal arranger for several years for the renowned Buenos Aires orchestra of Anibal Troilo, himself a truly innovative composer, though one who remained all of his life within the modes and rhythms of traditional tango.

The noted tango composer and pianist Osvaldo Pugliese was a great fan of Astor, and vice versa, although their styles of tango were markedly dissimilar. In his book Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir (compiled from interviews by Natalio Gorin), Astor writes “I wrote a special arrangement of ‘Adiós Nonino,’ and Osvaldo looked clueless – he couldn’t play a note. Later I tried to play [Osvaldo’s] ‘La Yumba’ his way and I couldn’t. I felt bad, as if I’d dirtied his music. . . [But] what will always remain unshakable is my appreciation of him as a human being and my admiration for him as a musician.” (You can hear a crazy and vivid example of the difference between these two by listening to them playing together at Carré in Amsterdam, in 1989, in a live-performance medley of “La Yumba” and “Adiós Nonino".)

There was a further quite special moment earlier in Astor’s life, when he met another tango revolutionary, Carlos Gardel. Generally regarded as the greatest singer of tango ever, “Carlitos” was an international recording and film star when he met the thirteen year-old Astor Piazzolla in New York City, where Astor and his parents Vicente and Asunta were living. Vicente had taken his family from Argentina to New York in 1924 (when Astor was three) in order to find work, and they lived on the Lower East Side (ironically, near Astor Place) for many years.

Astor was a scruffy kid with a limp caused by an accident of birth in one foot that required surgeries throughout his childhood. He walked funny, he was little, and he talked funny with an Argentine accent. He got into a lot of fights.

(Incidentally, one of Astor’s childhood friends was Jake La Motta, a New York Italian boy who later went on to become the middleweight boxing champion of the world. La Motta was immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s film Raging Bull, in which Robert De Niro plays him with the street-wise brio that informed almost everything La Motta did.)

Astor began playing the bandoneón in New York at his father Vicente’s insistence, and as a thirteen year-old in 1934, ever alert to job possibilities, he got work as an errand boy on the set of El día que me quieras. This was one of Carlos Gardel’s several musical comedies that were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria, New York studios. Within a few days, Astor and the great Carlitos Gardel became pals.

Astor’s father Vicente had a special feel for woodcarving. When he learned that Astor had made Carlitos’s acquaintance, he gave the boy a small carving he had done of an Argentine gaucho with a guitar, and asked him to give it to the singer. Astor did this and, in the process, informed Carlitos that he played bandoneón. As a result, Carlitos and his musicians tutored Astor on his instrument, and indeed Astor accompanied Carlitos on a couple of occasions at the Campoamor Theater on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Carlitos was killed in an airplane accident in Colombia on June 24, 1935. His plane was taxi-ing for takeoff and, in a heavy fog, hit another one. The subsequent fire killed the singer and several others, and to this day June 24 is a day of national mourning in Argentina.

Astor came to believe that his father’s gaucho carving was with Carlitos when he died. He had returned to Argentina after the airplane accident, and some years later he received a message from his very first bandoneón teacher, Andrés D’Aquila, who still lived in New York. Andrés had been passing by a pawn shop in Manhattan and had spotted a small wood carving of a gaucho with a guitar in the window. Curious, he looked at it more carefully and saw the name “Vicente Piazzolla” carved into its base. The carving itself was charred in many places, the evidence that it had been in a fire. Next to the figure was a hand-lettered sign that read “This belonged to an Argentine tango singer.”

Andrés went into the shop, to buy the gaucho for Astor. But the price was $20.00, money that Andrés did not have on him that day. The shop owner agreed to hold the carving overnight, until Andrés could get the funds. But when he came back the next day, the gaucho was gone, sold.

In his memoir, Astor writes that “it is hard to believe how that figure left New York. . . was found among the wreckage of the plane, and was picked up and returned to almost the same place where it had taken shape in my father’s hands. Because of it, because of the enormous spiritual value it has for me, I never lost hope that I would find it and that whoever has it some day would call me.”

That never happened, and among the gifts offered by a fan to a performer, that rude gaucho carving, wherever it is, surely conveys a far more personal artistic affection – equally to the admiring giver, the genius son who delivered it and the immortal star who died with it – than almost any such gift ever could provide.