They called him tango’s assassin. But Astor Piazzolla’s musical reboot made him a legend

With the Depression convulsing the United States, the Piazzolla family returned to Mar del Plata in 1936, a kind of golden age for tango culture. Astor, then 15, talked his way into bands and soon moved to Buenos Aires, a prodigy playing with some of the era’s best-known ensembles, notably the orchestra of the legendary Aníbal Troilo.

Troilo, however, would chide his protégé for using too many notes in his arrangements, confounding the dancers, Azzi says. A young Piazzolla once confided to a colleague his awe at the prospect of playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with an orchestra, his biographer notes.

“You won’t win anybody over with that,” his bandmate told him. “Leave those things for the North Americans.”

Even as he became famous and started his own tango orchestra, Piazzolla aspired to classical composition. He haunted rehearsals and performances at the Teatro Colón. Always brash, he took a piano score to the apartment of Arthur Rubinstein, the Polish-born piano virtuoso, then living in Buenos Aires.

“I studied and studied, and was happy,” Piazzolla said, recalling his lessons with Alberto Ginastera, a celebrated Argentine classical composer. “I analyzed music, started to buy records. I started to listen. And to change.”

That single-minded discipline likely shielded him from the vices of the tango demimonde, with its proliferation of booze, drugs and other enticements.

He married Dedé Wolf, an artist of French and German ancestry, in 1941.

Increasingly, Piazzolla turned to composing. In 1953, his symphonic piece “Buenos Aires,” notable because it integrated two bandoneóns with a classical orchestra, won a prestigious composing contest. That helped score him a scholarship to study in Paris. By then, Piazzolla later told interviewers, he was trying to put tango behind him, despite knowing hundreds of pieces by heart. But he lugged the 22-pound bandoneón to Europe.

In Paris, he studied under Nadia Boulanger, a famously demanding teacher who had mentored many U.S. composers, including Aaron Copeland. She found Piazzolla’s symphonic work technically sound but lacking personality. She asked him to play the bandoneón.

Astor Piazzolla rehearses in Eugene, Ore., in May 1989.

( Steve Slocum / For The Times)

“She didn’t hear the ‘chan cha cha,’ the common ‘chin boom’ of all the tangos,” Piazzolla told his daughter. “She heard a new tango, and opened my eyes wide. … I grabbed the bandoneón and from there never stopped. It was, I think, the most effervescent moment of my life in terms of creativity.”

He returned to Buenos Aires in 1955, he told an interviewer, with a “gladiator” mentality.

He formed an octet including an electric guitar, signaling a clear break with tradition. His fused a vision of jazz, classical and tango sounds with jagged improvised riffs that left dance in the dust. This was music to be listened to, he declared.

Argentina was outraged. Piazzolla was an “assassin” of the tango. He scrapped with bus drivers, cabbies and radio station managers. Finally, he got fed up and went back to his roots — New York.

“I was quite discouraged,” he recalled. “And when I get discouraged, I leave.”

His former stamping grounds weren’t especially welcoming. He couldn’t find work in New York. He struggled to support his wife and two kids.

He finally found a regular gig, not in New York but in a tango revue at the Club Flamboyán in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On opening night, word came that his beloved Nonino had died back in Mar del Plata. He kept on playing.

“It was my debut; I needed the money,” he recalled in a subsequent interview.

The grief inspired what many consider his supreme composition, “Adiós Nonino” — mostly written in a half-hour rush of mourning and inspiration.

“I don’t know how I did it,” he recalled. “I tried to write another ‘Adiós Nonino’ many times after that but never could.”

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