Read an Excerpt
"I Was Raised in New Fork" 1921-1937
* Mar del Plata
A Lower East Side Childhood *
* Astor and the Creole Thrush
I was raised in New York.
Astor Piazzolla, speaking in Central Park (1987)
Mar del Plata
Mar del Plata, located on the Atlantic coast, some 250 miles south of Buenos Aires across the level Argentine pampa, has little claim to antiquity. Formally named a city in 1874, its story really began only ten years later with the arrival of the railroad. Its excellent beaches and invigorating climate then began to attract a growing summertime population, and Argentina's best architects, drawing on a charming potpourri of mostly European styles, transformed Mar del Plata into the most stylish and handsome ocean resort south of the equator. Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla, the only child of Vicente Piazzolla and his wife Asunta Manetti, was born there at around two in the morning on Friday, 11 March 1921, in a rented room behind Angela Bridarolli's confectionery store, "La Marplatense," at Calle Rivadavia 2527, three blocks from the Cathedral. "We all thought," said Asunta later, "that it was a very good omen for a child to be born in that world of sweetness." Asunta's sister Argentina looked after mother and child for a few days after the birth, until Asunta felt well enough to get up.
The Piazzollas came from Trani, in the rather poor Puglia region of southern Italy. Astor's great-grandfather Ruggero was a sailor, his great-grandmother Lucrezia Covelli, a seamstress.Ruggero's son Pantaleo, born 30 October 1855, was also a sailor who, according to family tradition, decided to emigrate after his boat was shipwrecked. He thus become one of hundreds of thousands of Italians who moved to Argentina as its spectacular age of prosperity dawned in the 1880s. (By the 1920s Argentina was the seventh richest country in the world.) Pantaleón, as his name became, settled in Mar del Plata with his wife, Rosa Centofanti, whom he had married in May 1880. He worked as a sailor, fisherman, and lifeguard on the beach during the summer season and as doorman at one of the city's theaters. Tall and fair-haired, he was known as "the Dutchman" by the marplatenses he had come to live among. Among his hobbies was woodcarving, at which he became very expert. It was a skill he passed on to his younger son Vicente, born in Mar del Plata on 12 November 1893.
The grown-up Vicente became a small-time businessman. In 1921 he was running a bicycle store, catering to a universal demand in Mar del Plata. However, his real passion was for motorcycles, which he both bought and sold, including one sold to Astor Bolognini. Along with his brothers Ennio and Remo, Bolognini was following a distinguished career as a violinist in orchestras in North America. Ennio joined the first violin section in Toscanini's Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; Remo was later concertmaster in the same orchestra. Astor Bolognini himself played in the Chicago Symphony. Vicente became good friends with Astor, and so his name was given to Vicente's son. Its recipient was not altogether happy with it: he later complained to his first wife that Astor sounded more like a surname than a first name.
Astor's maternal grandfather, Luis Manetti, "the spitting image of Astor," says Astor's cousin Enriqueta Bertolami, had emigrated with his wife Clelia Bertolami from Lucca in Tuscany. He became a successful farmer on a small scale, still remembered in Mar del Plata for planting the trees in the Plaza Mitre, one of the resort's many fine squares. The Manettis were somewhat better off than the Piazzollas. Luis's daughter Asunta was four years younger than her husband-to-be. Vicente courted her during his military service, and they were married on 11 October 1918. The marriage was a happy one, at least when viewed in retrospect by their son. Their Mar del Plata relatives were also very fond of them. Astor's second cousin Ana María Tiribelli recalls Asunta as "very affectionate, very coquettish." Martín Piazzolla (son of Vicente's Italian-born elder brother Ruggero) thinks of her as "a very good aunt, very helpful." Vicente he saw as "a bit nervous, but very good, very hard-working." According to Asunta's sister Argentina Manetti, members of the Piazzolla family were "very intelligent, all of them. But very good people." Astor probably got his temperament from his father and his physical build from his mother. Vicente was very much taller than his wife. The adult Astor was 5'6" (1.70 meters) tall, and in many ways he was a Manetti in looks, though without the prominent nose of some of the male Manettis.
Years later his mother recounted that, as a baby, "Astor was as good as gold and never cried, though he didn't sleep much." In fact, the boy's first years were horribly complicated. He was born with a defective, badly twisted right leg, for reasons that were never fully clarified. Starting in his second year, Astor underwent repeated operations in the Sanatorio Marítimo, located in the La Perla district, before the problem was at least partially corrected. Almost all his earliest memories were of separations from his mother, of pain, of crying his heart out. It gave him a lifelong aversion to hospitals. Asunta decided to have no further children, although the doctors told her she could. "I would have liked some more," she would say later to her daughter-in-law.
Alberto Rodríguez Egaña, chief surgeon at the Sanatorio, performed the final operation, refusing payment for his services. Astor was left with a thinner but otherwise reasonably normal right leg, two centimeters shorter than the other. Having this condition affected him throughout his life, and it was a point on which he was always touchy. He hated to be described as rengo, "lame." One result of the slight deformity was, as Astor remembered, that "papa got it into his head that I had to be something great. He proposed that I should do everything that was forbidden me, so that I would get ahead, not be a solitary person, a person with complexes. If they forbade me to swim, he ordered me to go swimming. If they told me I shouldn't go running, he ordered me to go running." One thinks of an earlier artistic genius, Lord Byron, also born with a bad leg.
Your mother in a temper cried "Lame brat!"
Posterity should thank her much for that.
Not being a member of the English upper classes, Asunta would never have dreamed of shouting "Lame brat!" at Astor. In any case, this theory of the childhood roots of creativity is no longer held. But Vicente was right: his son did achieve greatness.
A Lower East Side Childhood
Vicente was a restless man, always inclined to believe that the grass was greener elsewhere. Asunta was much less sure that it was. Vicente had heard from friends that a good living could be made in New York. He journeyed there by boat to investigate the prospects, and then decided to emigrate. Astor had just turned four. His first identity card (No. 87979) was issued on 29 March 1925, and the journey, on the SS Pan America, must have been made soon afterward. The archival records of arrivals at New York for those weeks have now become illegible, so the precise date eludes us.
The Piazzolla family went first to Port Reading, New Jersey, to stay with Asunta's uncle Pablo Bertolami, who worked on the railroads. A year or two later, when there was a long railroad strike, Vicente and Asunta, defying Prohibition laws, ferried whiskey and vermouth (for the strikers to sell) to New Jersey in the sidecar of their motorcycle. In return, the Bertolamis rewarded them with chicken, eggs, cheese, and vegetables to take back home. As he grew up, Astor enjoyed visiting his cousins in their semirural New Jersey setting. The cousins were five boys: Frank, Ernest, Vincent, Reynold, and George. Astor kept in touch with them for the rest of his life.
The Piazzollas soon found an apartment in Manhattan, at 8 St. Mark's Place, over a billiard saloon run by a Jewish couple, the Wassermans. Asunta scrubbed and polished to make the apartment habitable. St. Mark's Place is nowadays the "main street" of the bohemian and semigentrified East Village, but in the 1920s it was a neighborhood not yet distinguished from the rest of the Lower East Side. The area adjoined two heavily Italian and Jewish districts. The Piazzollas were not far from New York's Little Italy around Mulberry Street, and the family often attended its merry mid-September festival of San Gennaro. To the east of Little Italy stood the overcrowded tenements of what was, in those days, the largest Jewish community in the world. Second Avenue, to the north and south of St Mark's Place, was still the "Jewish Rialto," noted for intellectual talk-fests and Yiddish theater. On one occasion, during Astor's childhood, a wedding party in a nearby synagogue was attacked and several people were killed. "Everything gets under the skin," Astor would say in 1990. "My rhythmic accents, 3-3-2, are similar to those of the Jewish popular music I heard at weddings." As a boy, he became what Yiddish speakers call nonpejoratively a shabbos goy, a "sabbath gentile," earning quarters on Saturdays for extinguishing the candles in the synagogue.
Asunta, who had not worked before, took a job in a workshop, gluing hair to animal skins. Vicente, meanwhile, found work as a barber, learning the craft in a shop run by a certain Tony Melli. He soon moved to a barbershop on Lafayette Street owned by a Sicilian immigrant, Nicola Scabuttiello, a man connected with the Mafia, though probably only in a small way. The classic five New York "families" were then consolidating (greatly helped by Prohibition), but most syndicate operations were still very local in scope. Scabuttiello's tiny empire included a number of billiard and gambling saloons. Vicente became something of a trusted friend to Scabutiello, who even allowed Astor to call him "uncle." The relationship had its advantages. When Astor was attacked by some youths in the Wassermans' saloon, Scabuttiello sent a brief note that said, "Never touch Piazzolla's son again." There was no further trouble. Life in his barbershop was also eventful. He once sent Vicente to warn off a rival who had set up shop on nearby Hudson Street, and a day or two later a bomb reinforced the warning. On another occasion, one of Vicente's clients was shot at from the street outside; the bullet grazed Vicente's shoulder, drawing blood. Eventually Vicente moved on, working finally for another Sicilian barber, Vicenzo Baudo, on Seventh Avenue.
In 1926, at the age of five, Astor went to his first school. Asunta equipped him with a medallion of St. Anthony, only to find it missing a few days later: the school was Protestant. The boy quickly adapted to New York life. He soon acquired the fluency in idiomatic English that he was to keep all his life, always with a New York accent. (Joseph Hurley, a New York writer who met him in the late 1980s, found his speech reminiscent of Little Italy, and Kip Hanrahan, his record producer in the same years, remembers it as "a New York English frozen in time.") And he made friends. His earliest bosom companions were two immigrant boys, Nicky Kavalishen, of Polish background, and Willy Lubiansky, a Russian. When Astor was seven, he was allowed to spend several summer weeks in rural Connecticut with Willy and his grandparents. He quickly tired of the Russian borscht they served every day, longing for the salami and cheese his parents brought him on visits, but he did not forget the Connecticut countryside: the flower-strewn hills, the heaps of unthreshed corn, the carts that took the corn away. Years later he was sometimes reminded of the scenes when watching American movies.
Though Astor was very fond of his parents"parents don't come like that anymore," he would say in 1973he always recognized that his upbringing was fairly strict. His relationship with his mother was very loving, something that remained true until her death in 1982. His father was a more awesome figure, a man who clearly did not believe in sparing the rod (or at least the strap) to spoil the child. By the same token, he was still eager for his son to succeed in life. When Astor was seven or eight, Vicente bought a notebook and began writing up his progress with fatherly pride. "Astor will go far," he wrote. "He is worth a great deal." Vicente had already been teaching his son how to box, mostly to build up his confidence, and when he was eight or nine, bought him some boxing gloves.
The gloves were probably needed. The boy had a combative, aggressive streak. Well behaved at home, he was mischievous in the street and at school. "I don't think I was a very good schoolboy," he said in 1965. "I never liked being ordered about." He was expelled from one or two of his early schools for fighting and was free with his fists in the streets, where he spent much of his time. His companions nicknamed him "Lefty," because of a stiff left-handed punch, a punch that came in handy when he joined his first gang. Gangs were ubiquitous in New York, ranging from the seriously criminal to the merely rough. They were often ethnically based: Irish, Italian, African-American, Jewish. While not as violent as later urban gangs, they were always prepared for fights with rival groups. Membership in a gang meant that Astor became "streetwise" at an early age, and his youthful attitudes reflected his Lower Manhattan surroundings. He once told his daughter Diana: "I have no friendship for the police. I always had problems with them. I was always getting into fights, was violent, and misbehaved on purpose." Perhaps he exaggerated his wickedness, rather in the way self-made millionaires like to exaggerate their original poverty, but the Lower East Side street world of Astor's childhood was certainly a tough one.
More important from the viewpoint of his life story was that when Astor was eight, his father gave him a bandoneon, bought from either a secondhand clothes dealer in downtown Manhattan or a pawnshop in Brooklyn. Astor was to tell the story in both versions. His uncle Octavio Manetti was visiting New York at the time and he and Vicente saw the squeezebox in the shopwindow, on sale for $18. "What's that?" Astor asked, when shown the instrument. He gazed at it for a very long time before daring to press its buttons. Vicente himself was moderately good on both accordion and guitar. He sometimes played at the New York Italian festivals, and he composed at least one tango. The apartment had phonograph records of the great tango bandleader Julio De Caro, and others by the tango's then recognized superstar, the baritone Carlos Gardel. When Vicente arrived home, usually around eight or nine o'clock, the first thing he did was to play a record, his eyes often moistening as he listened. Nothing would have pleased Vicente more than to see his son become a famous tango musician. He would certainly have seen the bandoneon as the key to that future. The bandoneon, invented in Germany in the 1830s, is a cousin of the accordion, though much more difficult to play. It was used in churches in the Black Forest as a substitute for the harmonium. When it reached Argentina, it was gradually adopted by tango bands. The instrument's rich, plaintive sound somehow became fundamental to the developing tradition of tango music, which was entering its great golden age at the time the Piazzollas migrated to New York and fast becoming Argentina's dominant tradition of popular music.
Astor's attitude toward learning the bandoneon was casual. "To give pleasure to the old man, I clumsily tried to learn," he recalled, "and I was dreadfully bad." Many of his childhood crazes, such as fixing radios, were short-lived, and the bandoneon stayed in the closet much of the time. But Vicente was anxious for his son to play and decided that Astor needed music lessons. Asunta, meanwhile, had been learning hairdressing and had helped an American friend set up a salon called Mary & Susan; its clientele consisted of Italians and Jews, attended to on alternate days. She also began to study cosmetics, inventing an almond-based beauty cream that she continued making for the rest of her life. Its formula, a closely guarded secret, was eventually passed on to a relative. One of her clients was a music teacher, a lady with whom she made a deal: regular manicures in exchange for lessons for Astor. Astor's mischievousness meant that the deal quickly fell through. His second teacher, an Italian friend of Vicente's who taught tonic sol-fa, violin, and mandolin, fared no better. The Italian was always cooking his dinner when Astor arrived for his evening lesson. The odors from the kitchen quickly aroused the boy's curiosity, and he learned several tasty recipes but probably not much else. In the end, the Italian threw him out for lack of progress. He was not making progress. Music still seemed far less important to him than his friends, his gang, his street life.
In retrospect, Astor always felt very positive about his lower Manhattan childhood. He was to describe it as "a happy childhood, not a tortured one. I was always coddled ..., I had everything." (In fact, the care his parents took over his clothing sometimes made him embarrassed when meeting his shabbily attired gang.) And he always recognized that New York left its mark on him. "I have New York very much inside me," he told Peter Watrous in 1987. "I'm sure that New York gave me courage. I learned to make myself tough in life, to take care of myself."
With the Depression, times changed for the Piazzollas, as for millions of others. The heady American prosperity of the 1920s melted away. Vicente decided to beat a retreat back to Argentina. Their friends saw them off at the pier: Scabutiello, the Wassermans, Uncle Pablo and the cousins, Willy Lubiansky and Nicky Kavalishen, even the Italian music teacher. Back in Mar del Plata in early 1930, Vicente used his New York savings to open a barbershop, the Peluquería Nueva York, at the intersection of Boulevard Independencia, where the family took an apartment, and Calle Moreno. Asunta opened a women's salon. Vicente's new barbershop was the most modern in the cityapparently the first to use electric clippers; but business was far from brisk, for the Depression had reached Argentina, too. Before long, Vicente was forced to sell the motorcycle he had brought from New York.
For the nine-year-old Astor, the transition was a tough one. His New York clothesScottish raincoat, long trousers, tartan socksdid not go over well with the marplatense children. His sturdy American shoes contrasted all too conspicuously with the alpargatas, the rough hemp footwear used by his new schoolmates. But if his schoolmates taunted him, or whistled and hissed at him in the street, "Lefty" knew how to handle them. Others were impressed by the smart American pencil case he brought to school. "He hardly knew how to speak Spanish," his teacher, Rosa Carmen Mattalia, would later recall, "and my sister Violeta and I taught him the first words. Our biggest problem was his left-handedness. How brutal we were in those days! We wanted to force him to write with his right hand, but there was no way. We even tied up his arm."
There were a few consolations in the strange town that happened to be his birthplace. He struck up a warm friendship with the daughter of a local physician and told his teacher that he was going to marry her. More exciting, no doubt, were hunting and fishing excursions to the Mar del Plata hinterland with his cousins Egnio, Aimone, and Roque Luis "Tito," the sons of Uncle José Bertolami and Aunt María Teresa Manetti, Asunta's sister. The Bertolamis also had three daughters, Clelia, María Teresa, and Enriqueta. Astor liked them. They took to him; he made their mother laugh. He was "affectionate, a bit of a pest, he liked making jokes," says Enriqueta, "[but] he was restless, very restless." His Piazzolla cousin Martín (six years older than Astor) found him "very playful, very funny." They went bicycling together. Another older marplatense boy, Mario Lenceti, played soccer with him and noticed a definite mischievous streak. If Astor did not get his way over something, "there would be blows, that's for sure." Lenceti saw him changing the cards on the presents at wedding receptionsa trick he was not averse to playing in adult lifeand altering the prices on articles in shops holding going-out-of-business sales. "He was always thinking up something new."
Music was not neglected back in Mar del Plata. Vicente and Asunta were determined that Astor should build on whatever rudiments he had picked up in New York. So he took bandoneon lessons twice a week with Líbero Pauloni, who turned up at the apartment red-eyed from his stints in marplatense nightspots. When Líbero moved to Buenos Aires, his brother Homero took over the lessons. Both were very competent bandoneonists, and their instruction could well have marked a vital moment in Astor's musical development. Asunta's brother Francisco was sometimes enlisted in the educational effort. Since he had a bicycle rental business to attend to, he locked Astor and his bandoneon in the bathroom of his house, sometimes lingering a while outside to listen, finding that "he was studying for real." Cousin Enriqueta Bertolami also thought Astor was seriously applying himself. When cousin Martín Piazzolla, himself a budding musician, called at the apartment one day, Aunt Asunta immediately asked him to test Astor's tonic sol-fa skills.
After nine months or so in Mar del Plata, Vicente decided to cut his losses and return to New York. To Astor it must have seemed like a return to normal. The New York City of the early 1930s was different from the one he had left. The unemployed now lined up at the soup kitchens. There were the "Hoovervilles," the miserable shantytowns in Central Park and Riverside Park. By 1932, nearly half the Italian families in Little Italy were without a grown-up wage earner. But the Depression would never loom large in Astor's memories. Vicente found work as a barber again. The family went back to the old neighborhood, to an apartment at 313 East 9th Street, a block or so from their former home. Astor was sent to Public School No. 92, which soon expelled him for bad behavior. He completed all the formal education he was ever to know at the Maria Aussiliatrice, a school run by the Salesian Order located at East 11th Street and Second Avenue, graduating in mid-1934. He sometimes took his bandoneon to school, to impress the girls, he later claimed. Eventually the Mother Superior gave him a couple of marches to study for a little festival she was organizing. Astor played marches in the schoolyard, surrounded by black-shirted boys. The marches were "Giovinezza" and "Camisa nera," the classic Italian Fascist anthems. One of the school's walls bore the slogan "Win a star. Spit on a Jew." "I think about it today," Astor said in 1983, "and it turns my stomach." The adult Astor Piazzolla was not the slightest bit racist.
At the insistence of his parents, he joined a boys' club and learned swimming and baseball. He became a good pitcher. He took boxing lessons at a nearby gymnasium, whose coach was Tony Canzoneri, the lightweight and junior welterweight world champion in the 1930s. Here Astor also encountered the young Jake La Motta, the future "Raging Bull." He was no older than Astor, but already he commanded the skills that would take him to the world middleweight championship. La Motta once invited Astor into the ring. "He gave me such a blow that I never went back to the gymnasium." Apart from his proficiency as a boxer, Astor learned to roller-skate and to ice-skate, and won several swimming prizes.
Once again he found a place in a gang, a tough crowd of mostly Italian-Americans. One of the gang's friends, though not a member, was Rocky Graziano, a future world middleweight champion. Astor could recite the gang members' names easily more than thirty years later: Nunzio Incataschiatta, Nino Rodosti, John Pomponio, Joseph Campanella, Gaspar Sacco, Peter Renda. One of the gang's habits was to buttonhole film actor (and former assistant to bootleggers) George Raft, who lived on 11th Street, and extract a few coins from him. Another passion was pase inglés a now largely forgotten card game. When a reasonable amount of money had accumulated in a session, Astor sometimes would sneak off and call the police. The sound of approaching sirens scattered his companions, and "Lefty" pocketed the proceeds.
His closest friend in New York after 1930 was outside the gang. He was a young Polish American, Stanley Sommerkovsky (later Sommers). The boys became inseparable. At least twice they ran away from home together, getting only a few miles up Long Island. Astor seems to have been the one who turned for home first. Mostly they simply wandered the streets, played in Central Park, or, disguised as adults with overcoats and hats, made off to Harlem to listen to Cab Calloway or Duke Ellington. Years later, when Astor saw the movie Cotton Club (1984), he was moved by its vivid recreation of the sights and sounds he and Stanley had once experienced. His experiences in Harlem gave him one of his lifelong loves, his love for jazz.
Stanley was also his accomplice in an attempted robbery. Astor coveted a large chromatic Hohner harmonica he had seen in Macy's. They stole the harmonica, but a burly policewoman arrested them as they left the store. On their way to the police station, Astor distracted her with a sudden shout. He and Stanley escaped by jumping on to a passing truck. The experience cured them of serious criminal ambition. However, minor misdemeanors were another matter. Astor's New Jersey cousin George Bertolami, who found him "crazy, quite a character, kind of wild," remembers that he usually avoided paying the fare when they rode the trolleys together.
Meanwhile, his parents continued to encourage his musical interest. One night, Vicente took him to a Spanish-owned cabaret, El Gaucho, where Astor played a tango. Soon afterward, Astor joined forces with an Argentine singer and guitarist, Agustín Cornejo, and a Peruvian called Pichardo. On Thursday, 29 December 1932, Astor took part in an entertainment, "An Evening in Argentina," at Roerich Hall on West 103rd Street, announced in the program as the "boy wonder of the bandoneon." The New York Spanish-language papers described him in similarly eulogistic terms. For Astor, who was eleven years old, it was a memorable moment, the first time he felt "the excitement of being on stage, being applauded by people." Three months later he performed again at Roerich Hall, winning praise from the New York newspaper La Prensa for his "excellent musical technique."
By this stage Astor was taking lessons from the third of his New York music teachers, Andrés D'Aquila, an Argentine pianist who lived on East 13th Street. D'Aquila had played in tango bands in Buenos Aires during the 1920s, and, in his own words, had gone to New York "as a pure adventurer." He had some ability with the bandoneon and evidently managed to improve Astor's skills. How seriously Astor concentrated is another matter. He often persuaded D'Aquila to take him to the movies, and D'Aquila enjoyed practical jokes, once pretending to be dead in his armchair and laughing loudly when the alarmed Astor called in the neighbors.
When D'Aquila had to give up teaching, after nearly a year, Astor was sent to Terig Tucci, an Argentine musician who worked for the NBC radio network. Tucci lived on 110th Street, well over a hundred blocks from Astor's home, a good walk for Astor and Vicente, who took him to the lesson. What Tucci gave him we cannot be sure. In any case, Astor was, for the moment, more enthusiastic about the harmonica and tap dancing. One of his idols was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Vicente was indulgent. He sent Astor to a harmonica "academy" on 42nd Street, and bought him a pair of steel-tipped shoes. Astor and his friend Nunzio Incataschiatta began going over to 14th Street, where they shined shoes, played the harmonica, tap danced, and passed the hat. When Vicente found out, as he did, he once again took the strap to his son.
At the age of thirteen Astor became enamored of Maria Alberti, the daughter of a local baker, only to discover that she preferred his friend Peter Renda, a well-built youth with a striking resemblance to Cary Grant. However, his bitter feelings soon passed, as they usually do at that age. As he would describe in a 1983 interview, his sexual initiation took place around this time, "with a girl they brought to the club to ... well she served us, more or less. She was horribly fat, and weighed four times more than I did. But anyway, she was a sort of professional who fulfilled her function."
But music was gradually coming to be at least as important as baseball or boxing or pase inglés. The Piazzollas' next-door neighbor on East 9th Street was Bela Wilda, a Hungarian pianist and pupil of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Astor was mesmerized by the sound of Wilda's piano as he practiced, and he began staying at home simply to listen. He became obsessed by Wilda's playing of Bach ("I fell in love with Bach, I went crazy," he would say later) and quickly decided he wanted to study with Wilda. Vicente finally gave in. Wilda had no knowledge of the bandoneon but could arrange piano pieces for the instrument. More important, he introduced Astor to classical music, which soon seemed as alluring as jazz. Wilda was far from well off; he wore patched pants and owned only one suit. Astor frequently took him pasta dishes prepared by Asunta, and Wilda and his wife soon became friends of the Piazzollas, often lunching with them. Astor was to regard him as his "first great master." He later told British interviewer Tony Staveacre that it was only with Wilda that he really learned to read music.
Wilda's example clinched Astor's desire to be a musician. While still in school, and for a year or so afterward, he sometimes performed in theaters or on the radio. Terig Tucci, his former teacher, recruited him from time to time, and on 3 July 1935 he played in a group directed by Tucci in Schenectady, New York. He cannot have had many engagements of this sort, for the Musicians' Union in New York barred minors from working. It is faintly possible that he tried to join established dance bands, such as Xavier Cugat's or Pedro Vincent's, but was prevented from doing so by union rules. How long he played his bandoneon in the trio with Pichardo and Cornejo (the latter a popular visitor at East 9th Street) we do not know. They certainly performed folk numbers several times on the radio, and in 1935, Astor played in a radio program transmitted to Argentina, dedicating his pieces to his grandparents.
He was also occasionally "promoted" by Armando Zegrí, a Chilean journalist and novelist who owned the well-known Café Latino on Greenwich Village's Barrow Street. Zegrí organized bandoneon recitals for Astor in universities, where he played pieces such as Rossini's William Tell Overture and Mozart's "Turkish March." Zegrí also secured an engagement for him to play (almost certainly in spring 1933) at the opening of some of the buildings of the new Rockefeller Center, where, as Astor later recounted, "a gentleman did a drawing of me and gave it to me. Afterwards I learned that it was Diego Rivera." Rivera had been painting the famous revolutionary mural that brought his dismissal by the Rockefellers and their destruction of the mural, one of the twentieth century's great acts of artistic vandalism. Rivera noticed Astor playing the bandoneon, and this evidently provoked a friendly feeling. At the time, the boy had no idea of the Mexican artist's fame. He kept the drawing for the rest of his life.
Astor's musical interests were now beginning to take shape. He was eclectic in his enthusiasms. The classical music he studied with Bela Wilda, the jazz he heard in Harlem, the folk numbers he played with Cornejo and Pichardoall these influenced his adolescent ear. In 1930 he wrote a ranchera (a popular South American variant of the mazurka), which he later described as "horrible," and in 1932 a tango he called "Paso a paso por Broadway" ("Step by Step on Broadway"). Vicente insisted he rechristen it "La Catinga," which sounded more tanguero. He still showed no particular enthusiasm for tango music, despite the records in the apartment and his father's insistent urgings. Indeed, Vicente himself by now quite liked hearing Bach played on his son's bandoneon. It was at this point that Astor's young life was briefly touched by the tango's most legendary personality. He was turning thirteen at the time.
Astor and the Creole Thrush
On Thursday, 28 December 1933, Latin America's most famous popular singer arrived in New York from France on board the SS Champlain. Carlos Gardel (18901935) was modern Argentina'sin fact, modern Latin America'sfirst genuine superstar. El zorzal criollo, "the Creole Thrush," as he was known, had helped create the tango song as a distinct genre. He was the greatest of all tango singers, the idol of Buenos Aires, and a recent star of cabaret and theater in Paris. His first movies, made in France by Paramount, were being shown all over Latin America. He had come to New York for a series of radio programs on NBC. He also hoped to convince Paramount to make more films. The corporation was persuaded. In 1934 and 1935, at the Astoria studios on Long Island, Gardel made four movies, all of them sensational box office hits around Latin America.
Like so many Argentines, Vicente was a devoted Gardel fan. He put his woodcarving talent to good use, cutting the figure of a gaucho playing a guitar. He inscribed it and instructed Astor to deliver the carving to the apartment where Gardel was living with his musical adviser Alberto Castellano, and Alfredo Le Pera, his lyricist and scriptwriter. So it was that on a bright spring morning in 1934 Astor found himself at the entrance to the tall Beaux Arts buildings on East 44th Street. Here he ran into a bald-headed man holding a milk bottle and looking lost. Astor addressed him in English and got a reply in Spanish. It was Alberto Castellano, who had mislaid his key. He asked the nimble boy to climb the fire escape and enter the penthouse apartment through a window. "Gardel is the one in the pajamas with the white spots," he explained. The first person Astor woke up was Alfredo Le Pera, who was bad-tempered about the sudden intrusion. The great man himself, by contrast, proved extremely friendly. He opened the package, contemplated the little figure, offered Astor breakfast, and gave him two signed photographs, one for Vicente.
Astor was to see much of the star over the next year. Gardel found the boy's English particularly useful on shopping expeditions. He was trying to learn English himself, without much success. There were numerous excursions to buy clothes and shoes at Gimbels, Macy's, Florsheim, and Saks. On one occasion recalled by Astor, Gardel was desperate to renew his supply of the striped shirts he wore in his films. "We went around till we found them, one afternoon, I think it was at Saks ... and he bought twenty or thirty shirts." It did not take long for Astor to reveal that he played the bandoneon. Gardel liked his versions of classical pieces but was unimpressed by his tangos. He put it to him in impeccable lunfardo, the street Spanish favored by porteños, the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. "Mirá pibe, el fueye lo tocás fenómeno, pero el tango lo tocás como un gallego" ("Look, lad, you're top-notch at playing the squeezebox, but you play the tango like a gringo!"). Gardel allowed himhow often we cannot sayto accompany his singing, most likely in private, unless, as the adult Astor occasionally claimed, he was sometimes permitted to join the orchestra that backed Gardel's songs. He certainly accompanied Gardel at a dinner party held at the Astoria studios, and evidently there were parties at Gardel's apartment when Astor played his bandoneon to substitute for the piano, which was usually out of tune. Vicente and Asunta were obviously flattered by the star's interest in their son. They must have relished the one occasion when Astor brought him to eat with them at East 9th Street.
Early in 1935 Gardel gave Astor the tiniest of parts in the third and best of his New York movies, El día que me quieras. Astor's pay was $25, and he played a newspaper boy. "The role is just right for a loafer like you," said Gardel. For the rest of his life, Astor was to treasure a still of the fleeting and barely noticeable scene in the movie in which he appears with Gardel and actor Tito Lusiardo. At the end of March, with his fourth and last film completed, Gardel set out on a tour of the countries around the Caribbean. It was the fateful journey that took him to his death on the airfield at Medellín, Colombia, on 24 June. Astor played his bandoneon at one of several farewell parties for the star. Gardel wanted Astor to go with him on the tour, as some kind of factotum or general assistant. Vicente put his foot down; Astor was only fourteen. Another young New York Argentine, José Corpas Moreno, went in Astor's place and so became a victim of the fatal accident in Colombia. Such are the terrible twists of fate. If Astor had gone, as he wrote later, "I would now be playing the harp, not the bandoneon."
There is a slightly eerie postscript to the encounters of Gardel and Astor in the Manhattan of 1934-35. The adult Piazzolla told the story many times, perhaps best in his extended interview with Alberto Speratti in 1968:
In 1956 or 1957 ... Andrés D'Aquila came to see me in Buenos Aires, and he said, "Astor, I'm going to tell you something that will stand your hair on end. Just recently, while walking round Greenwich Village, I saw, in a basement store, a little wooden figureall scorched and burnedwith a label underneath that said FIGURE THAT BELONGED TO AN ARGENTINE SINGER. I go in and ask how much it costs. The assistant says twenty dollars. I only have ten with me, so I tell her I'll come back next day. When I go back next day with the cash, the figure had gone. They'd sold it." It's spine-chilling to think of the travels of that little figure. I'd given it to Gardel, it had been in the crash with him at Medellin and had got partly burned, and someone stole it there. Heaven knows how it got from Colombia to New York, to a business only a block or two away from the house where my father carved it. It's almost as if the figure had wanted to go back for a moment to 9th Street.
Astor always hoped that someone might find the carving and send it to him. Nobody ever did.