Le Grand Tango: A biography of Astor Piazzolla

I first discovered the music of Astor Piazzolla when I discovered tango.

I was attending a party at Casa Hispana in San Francisco, a celebrated school for the Spanish language, in 1993. The school’s owner, an Argentine named Sonia Fava, introduced me to Nora Olivera, another Argentine whose small tango troupe had just danced for the celebrants. I had never seen such a dance or heard such music. I was later to learn that what these people were doing was the popular style of social tango iseen at any of a number of clubs and dance halls, every day, in Buenos Aires. It is intimate, friendly, close-embrace, and very stylish. Containing little of the flash pyrotechnics that you see in the professional stage tango performances, this dance is far more quiet and social. It is an expression of friendship and, danced correctly, of deep regard for each other.

I began a conversation with Nora, whose conversational abilities are almost as accomplished as those of her own dance. When Nora speaks with you, you listen because she speaks with considerable professional authority and fine humor. I was at the time in deep study of the Spanish language, and began rhapsodizing about its beauties. Nora listened. I continued on…and somewhat on…about a few of the poets I was trying to read. So…Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets and some of the intimate poetry of Federico García Lorca. Nora listened, but I could tell she was tiring of my lecture.

Finally, she offered a welcoming smile. “Terry, you will never understand the Spanish language until you dance tango.”

I like apocalyptic statements, especially when they come from someone who knows what she is talking about and are offered with real humor. I recognized both in Nora’s remark. But I also recognized my own fear. For me to do what I had seen Nora and her troop doing that night was close to impossible, I felt.

Me? Tango? No.

We saw each other occasionally during the following year, at various gatherings. She pestered me about tango. When was I going to get started? I demurred. Why haven’t I seen you in class? I offered many inventive excuses. But finally, on Saturday, October 8, 1994, I took a deep breath and signed on for my first class in Argentine tango with Nora Olivera. It’s now been twenty-three years, twice a week with Nora, and I believe I’m able to essay the dance with reasonable ability.

In the meantime, I’ve also learned about Astor Piazzolla. If you are at all interested in tango, you inevitably will have to deal with this man’s music, and the experience is beyond thrilling.

My principal guides have been Piazzolla himself and his many, many compositions, most of which have been recorded by Piazzolla and numerous others. But also I had the good luck to encounter María Susana Azzi, Simon Collier, and their book Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, when it was first published in 2000 by Oxford University Press.

This fine book is the product of massive research by the two authors, in Piazzolla’s personal life and particularly in his composition habits, the previous composers and performers who helped him hone his extraordinary talents, and the many individuals who influenced him along the way. Azzi and Collier were able to interview hundreds of Piazzolla’s family, friends, and professional colleagues. The observations of these people who knew Piazzolla intimately gives the biography a spice and heat that it may not have had if the two authors had not begun their research so soon after the maestro’s death in 1992. There is real immediacy to this book, a worldly knowledge of the musical and professional elements with which Piazzolla contended every day, on many continents. In its foreword, the great cellist Yo-yo Ma says “Piazzolla’s music is endlessly passionate—full of yearning—and at the same time tremendously contemporary.” The book is the same.

Sadly, Simon Collier passed away in 2003. When we learned at Astor & Lenox that María Susana Azzi had regained the rights to this book from Oxford University Press, we asked her if she would consider our publishing an updated version of it. She graciously accepted, and in the few years since then has done even more research into Piazzolla’s life and in the developments around the world that have served only to enhance his legendary reputation. This anniversary digital edition, published twenty-five years after Piazzolla’s passing, came out this February, and a hardcover version is forthcoming. It is the single most important record of Piazzolla’s life that has ever been written.