His “Tango revolution” allowed the music to be renewed by including a wide range of influences.
Nearly 26 years after his death, Astor Piazzolla remains a towering figure in Tango music as a bandoneónist, composer and innovator.
He is to Tango as Charlie Parker was to jazz, a virtuoso on his instrument, a composer of important works that are considered standards and a visionary who took his chosen music far beyond its roots.
Born in 1925 in Argentina, Piazzolla’s family moved to New York when he was four. While in New York, Piazzolla’s father purchased his son’s first bandoneón and he was introduced to jazz and classical music (particularly Bach), seeds that would flower later in life.
The family returned to Argentina when Piazzolla was a teenager. However, he had very little interest in Tango until he heard the Elvino Vardaro Sextet on the radio. (Vadaro was an important violinist and composer during the 1920 and 1930s who later performed in Piazzolla’s quintet in the 1950s.)
In the 1940s and 1950s, Piazzolla performed as a sideman and lead his own ensembles. In 1954, a scholarship that allowed him to study with acclaimed teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris lead to the “Great Tango Revolution.” Boulanger encouraged him to find his own voice within Tango, and Piazzolla cited her as one of his most important influences.
This revolution included using non-traditional instruments such as sax and electric guitar, excluding vocal works, no bookings in in dance halls and only performing contemporary compositions with few restrictions on influences.
Eventually called Tango Nuevo (New Tango), in Piazzolla’s hands the music was full of variations and contained elements from a wide range of influences, including Stravinsky, Basie, Berg, Ellington other modernists. Early in the revolution, Piazzolla’s ensemble had to fold because of a lack of bookings. But by the 1980s, Piazzolla had achieved international stardom.
Piazzolla died in July 1992, his place in music history secured.