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Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla

Book Description

Astor Piazzolla was a musical genius, a man who used the national dance of Argentina as raw material for a whole new musical genre. In Le Grand Tango, María Susana Azzi and Simon Collier vividly capture the life of this extraordinary musician--a visionary who won worldwide acclaim, but sparked bitter controversy in his native land.

Azzi and Collier trace Piazzolla's early life from his birth in Argentina in 1921 to his childhood years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he first developed a talent for the bandoneón, the accordion-like instrument central to the tango. They describe his return to Argentina at age 16 and his rapid rise in the intoxicating world of tango, where he quickly earned a place with the leading dance band, and then formed his own group. But at the height of his success, Piazzolla decided to take tango music to a new level and studied composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Combining deft musical analysis and intriguing personal insight, Azzi and Collier show how he created a dramatically new style of tango music influenced by jazz and classical pieces--a tango music meant for listening, not dancing. But they also show that, in the birthplace of the tango, he met fierce resistance. He eventually left Argentina for Europe, where he emerged as an international celebrity.

Since Piazzolla's death in 1992, his influence has only grown. Jazz giants such as Gary Burton and Al Di Meola--and classical stars Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Daniel Barenboim--have all recorded albums of his works. Now Azzi and Collier have given us the first biography of this astonishingly gifted musician.


Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was the great pioneer of modern tango music, a masterly composer and bandoneón player who won increasing international fame with his Quintet in the 1980s, in Europe, North and South America, and Japan. Born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, he was taken by his parents to New York at the age of four and grew up on the tough streets of the Lower East Side. As a teenager he became passionately fond of both jazz and classical music, while also learning the bandoneón--the classic tango instrument and a member of the accordion family. On his return to Argentina at age 16, he quickly found his place in the flourishing tango world, then at its peak in Argentina, joining the most legendary dance band of the period, and in 1946 forming his own band. He studied with Alberto Ginastera and tried for a while to establish himself as a classical composer. In 1954-1955 he studied with the great Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She firmly told him to develop his own modern tango style, which he did in an extraordinary sequence of works, played by his notable groups--the Octet (1955), the first Quintet (1960), and the Nonet (1971). This biography follows each event in his life and career.

About Astor Piazzolla

"There is no equivalent person who played as central a role in jazz as Astor Piazzolla has in tango. Imagine that instead of numerous jazz giants such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Miles Davis, there was just one modern jazz hero who was both virtuoso performer and prolific composer. In the world of tango, Piazzolla was just a unique figure."

--Gary Burton

"I'll say this for Astor: he makes the air swing."

--Arnold Jay Smith in "Down Beat"


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Square-built and accordion-like, the bandoneón is a unique instrument, difficult to play yet adaptable to many musical styles. One of its most famous masters, the Argentine composer and tanguero Astor Piazzolla, is the subject of this fascinating biography. Painstakingly researched, with revealing quotes from Piazzolla's family, friends, teachers and colleagues, the book provides an intimate look at the musician's life. In 1921, Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata to first-generation Argentines of Italian descent. He was an only child with doting parents; his transient childhood involved numerous moves between New York and Argentina and was marked by his penchant for practical jokes. Piazzolla had a natural knack for the bandoneón, which he began playing at eight years of age, and he appeared on stage for the first time when he was 11. Seven years later, his collaboration with Aníbal Troilo's famous orquesta típica led to his rise as an emerging tango star, and he was soon writing unique, innovative arrangements that caused a furor in Buenos Aires. His studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris confirmed his love for the instrument, and throughout his travels he incorporated elements of traditional tango, classical music and jazz into his work. The authors concentrate on Piazzolla's relationships with his first wife, Dedé Wolff, and their children, following their breakup and his subsequent marriage to Laura Escalada. Although lacking in deep musical analysis, this captivating tribute excellently portrays the man behind such masterpieces as "Adiós Nonino" and "María de Buenos Aires." 42 halftones. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Argentine composer and performer Piazzolla (1921-92) updated tango music and brought it to the international concert stage, attracting a large following while angering tango traditionalists. Born in Mar del Plata on the Atlantic coast, 250 miles south of Buenos Aires, he spent most of his childhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side, slipping into Harlem clubs to hear Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. A lover of tango, jazz, and classical music, he created and toured with various ensembles, wrote for the movies, and studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Azzi, [a Cultural Anthropologist and] a board member of the National Academy of Tango in Buenos Aires, and Collier, author of seven books on Latin America, provide both personal and professional details and musical analysis. This first biography in English, with discography (CD only) and extensive notes, will be valuable for collections focusing on world music or Latin American culture.

--Kate McCaffrey, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

"As a composer, arranger, bandoneonist, and performer, Astor Piazzolla's specialty was the music of Buenos Aires--the tango. Piazzolla, who died in 1992, was born in Argentina in 1921, spent his early years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and returned to Argentina at age 16. Piazzolla brought to the tango influences as diverse as jazz, contemporary classicism, and Italian opera, out of which he distilled "Nuevo tango" (New tango). The authors chronicle his years working in New York and Europe, especially in Paris and Rome (his four grandparents were immigrants from Italy), his growth as a composer and bandoneonist, his two marriages, his relationship with his children, and his recording sessions with such artists as saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and vibraphonist Gary Burton. The authors base their book on 240 interviews with Piazzolla's family, friends, and fellow musicians. With great care and fidelity, the authors define Piazzolla's place and relevance in the world of twentieth-century music.

--George Cohen, Booklist

"As authors Azzi/Collier say in their final lines, Piazzolla's music speaks for itself, and it is likely to do so in the year 2020, and possibly well in 3000."

--Buenos Aires Herald