Piazzolla’s Record Collection

The legendary Argentine composer and bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla misremembered a key event in his own musical formation.  Piazzolla produced his great innovation, the avant-garde musical genre known as the New Tango, by applying some of the hip aesthetic practices of cool jazz to the tango, a dance music that he felt was hopelessly lowbrow and old-fashioned.  Piazzolla dispensed with the typical big band and forged instead small groups – first the Octeto Buenos Aires and later the Quinteto Nuevo Tango – in which each musician was a soloist.  His groups played serious, intense music in small nightclubs for audiences who listened rather than danced.

The influence of jazz was clear, and Piazzolla had a story to account for it.  He claimed that when he was in Paris in 1954, studying composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, he had seen a performance by an octet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.  The interplay between the musicians and, most of all, their obvious sense of collective joy inspired Piazzolla, and he immediately began planning his own octet.  The story appealingly confirms the jazz influence on New Tango.  Unfortunately, as Diego Fischerman and Abel Gilbert have shown, it never happened.  Mulligan did perform at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1954 but with a quartet not an octet and, more problematically, two months before Piazzolla arrived in France. 1

I would argue that Piazzolla’s borrowings from jazz could only have come via records. Most conceptions of jazz identify improvisation as the genre’s central aesthetic practice. And yet apart from a few early experiments, Piazzolla did not make much use of improvisation, nor did he imitate jazz’s swing-based rhythm. Instead, what drew him to the sort of cool jazz Mulligan specialized in was the sophistication of its arrangements, the intricate interplay reminiscent of chamber music. With Boulanger, Piazzolla was studying counterpoint, a technique that drew him to Bach and away from tango. In this context, cool jazz was a revelation, whether he heard it in the interwoven melodic lines played by Mulligan and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer on the Salle Pleyel album or in Gil Evans’s elaborate arrangements on the Birth of the Cool recordings of Miles Davis’s Nonet, which also featured Mulligan. 2 Here was a popular music form that employed serious composition, harmony, arrangement, and even counterpoint. Cool jazz showed Piazzolla that it was possible to be a serious tango composer. And this is a revelation that would have been much more difficult to have on the basis of a handful of live performances. Records would have allowed Piazzolla to bring cool jazz into his home and listen to it in the context of his classical composition studies and his ongoing tango practice.

The key role of records in the transnational dissemination of music was demonstrated more than a decade ago by Lise Waxer in her brilliant book on the history of salsa in Cali. 3 Located in southwestern Colombia, far from the Caribbean, Cali has no direct connection to salsa, a music and dance genre based on Afro-Cuban forms and invented in New York City. Yet by the 1980s, Cali had emerged as a major center of salsa performance and consumption, and Caleños embraced the music as a symbol of their city. Waxer uncovers the way record collectors and DJs disseminated salsa records, appropriating and resignifying the music in the process. She shows that Caleños adopted a foreign musical form as their own in order to compete with culturally dominant forms like música andina and, later, the cumbia produced on the Atlantic Coast. The city’s record collectors used transnational music to express local concerns. For example, a preference for salsa dura, the old-fashioned style associated with New York in the 1960s, expressed a macho rejection of frivolous consumerism and other values associated with women. In general, Waxer’s account stresses the agency of the listener, an agency that records facilitated. Since they were collecting records and not, say, tuning into New York or Puerto Rican radio stations, Caleños built their own distinctive salsa corpus. And they used these records in creative ways: DJs played 33 rpm bugalú records at 45 rpm in order to create a faster music more conducive to local dance styles.

In Cali, as in Buenos Aires and Paris, records enabled the transmission and reappropriation of musical styles; they were the material reality of musical exchange. And yet, like Piazzolla, who put a live performance and not a record at the center of his own story of musical borrowing, most scholars have neglected the records at the center of the transnational history of music. By paying attention to records and by tracing their paths of distribution, scholars can write this history in new ways. Of course, historians will have to attend to the power of multinational record companies to decide what music appeared on record and which records were distributed where. But as both Piazzolla and Caleño salsa fans demonstrate, any transnational history of records will also have to reconstruct the agency of record listeners.

Notes:

  1. Diego Fischerman and Abel Gilbert, Piazzolla el mal entendido (Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2009), 124-29.
  2. I cannot establish that Piazzolla heard these recordings, but they were certainly available both in Argentina and France. Davis’s “Israel” from the Birth of the Cool sessions had been enthusiastically reviewed in the Buenos Aires jazz press in 1951. See Jazz Magazine (12/51), 8-9.
  3. Lise A. Waxer, The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves, and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002).

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