The decade that followed the establishment of the Sexteto Tipico as the standard formation for all tango orchestras, was a period of greatness for the evolutionary development of the tango, primarily as music to be listened to as well as danced. A reading of most chronicles of the time clearly indicates a condescending bias with regards to the dance aspect of the tango. In a pontificating, elitist discourse, the general consensus among many published “historians” associate the dance of tango with a lackluster, monotonous, uninspired way to play the tango by groups lacking the artistic motivation to explore further than the dancer’s feet.
For the “academics” of tango (who positively never ventured into the world of the dance as practitioners), the evolutionary period that started in the mid nineteen twenties when Julio De Caro took over the six piece orchestra led by Juan Carlos Cobian, was a period of splendor and renaissance for tango music. A newer generation of well trained musicians displaced the orejeros (those who played by ear without a hint of musical training) from the countless sextets that could be heard everywhere. It is arguably said that in the Sexteto Tipico resided the most genuine form of expressing the tango in an instrumental manner.
Originally the tango was a popular dance manifestation. It attracted later the upper class to the cabaret, the new institution imported from Paris. Now, an entire new generation of public also enjoyed tangos sitting in reverential silence at cafes and movie houses all over the city of Buenos Aires. Musicians enjoyed full employment in an unsurpassed period of prosperity for the musical genre that identified itself with the pulse of a growing and changing population. In a parallel dimension, a whole strata of the middle and lower class population followed with fascination the successes of singer Carlos Gardel, who, save on rare occasions, preferred to sing tangos with the accompaniment of guitars, shunning away from the orchestras.
The multi dimensional depth and density of the tango as an art form is sometimes overlooked from a historical point of view, because up until now, no serious writing or retrospective accounts of its history has been undertaken from the point of view of the dancer. But it is today’s dancer who on a nightly basis explores a rich body of music that spans various generations of composers and musicians. As dancers take to the dance floor, they re-write in every step new chapters of history and give a more equitable and fair credit to everyone who ever created great music over a distinctive rhythm which is the roux of the tango. A gumbo without a roux is just another soup, and a tango without a rhythm is just another piece of music.
There is no doubt that dancing continued during the decade that led to the first major crisis of the tango. The aristocracy found the cabaret a natural habitat to enjoy night life. Buenos Aires became a replica of Paris and Montmartre with cabarets named Armenonville, Royal Pigall, Maxim’s, Tabarin, Montmartre, etc. Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro, Eduardo Arolas, Vicente Greco and Juan Maglio “Pacho” occupied their stage boxes, soon to be joined by the names from a new generation of musicians: Osvaldo Fresedo, Julio De Caro, Pedro Maffia and many more.
At cafes in every neighborhood of the city, the most celebrated sextets competed for the reverent silent listening of a growing number of tango aficionados. Graciano de Leone at Cafe Dominguez, Arturo Berstein at El Parque, Emilio de Caro at Los Andes, are just the tip of a Titanic dimension iceberg of musicians who found a period of an employment bonanza as the Tango was sung, danced and listened to.
Savvy entrepreneurs took on many of the popular theaters of the city for their carnival balls whereupon Francisco Canaro, Julio de Caro, Francisco Lomuto, Osvaldo Fresedo, Pedro Maffia, Roberto Firpo, Edgardo Donato, Arturo De Bassi, etc. led legions of excellent musicians in an annual celebration of Tango dancing at its best.
Max Glucksman Enterprises, owners of the Nacional-Odeon record label, began yearly tango contests in 1924 which encouraged the composition of many new tangos to be entered into these contests. Roberto Firpo was hired to play the entries at the first contest, including the winners, Canaro’s Sentimiento gaucho, Catulo and Gonzalez Castillo’s Organito de la tarde, and Filiberto’s Amigazo. In successive years, other orchestras including Francisco Canaro’s took part in the equivalent of “Tango Grammies,” augmenting the size of the orchestra with already, or soon to become, famous virtuoso-like violinists Cayetano Puglisi and Elvino Vardaro; clarinetist Juan Carlos Bazan and bandoneon players Juan Bautista Guido and Jose Servidio.
Enrique Delfino, the immortal author of Milonguita, introduced the concept of tango recitals featuring soloists with artistic talents, capable of attracting and maintaining the listening interest of a public, with the proper seriousness of an evolutionary musical manifestation. Delfino himself on piano, with one of the most technical violinists of the time, Agelisao Ferrazzano, opened the cycle in the foyer of the Teatro Opera during intermission.
The response to this first attempt to play tango music with a musical intention totally devoid of the demands of the rhythm essentially required for dancing, was overwhelming, and attracted not only the most qualified soloists, but opened the doors for Enrique Delfino, Osvaldo Fresedo and Tito Roccatagliata to travel to the United States to record about fifty titles for the Victor label, under the name of Orquesta Tipica Select. The quintet was completed by Luis Alberto Infantas, an Argentine violinist residing in New York, and an American violoncello player named Herman Mayer. This happened in 1920, a mere three years after the little dog Nipper, above the central hole of the Victor label, listened faithfully to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band‘s first ever Jazz recording, rather than to His Master’s Voice.
The success of this venture led the three musicians to add a second violin, Agelisao Ferrazzano, shortly after returning to Buenos Aires, calling the four piece combo, Cuarteto de Maestros. If success breeds imitation, it also encourages dissent. Soon, Delfino walked out and formed a second Master’s Quartet with Julio de Caro and Manlio Francia on violins and Roque Biafore on bandoneon. Meanwhile, Fresedo, Roccatagliata and Ferrazzano called on Juan Carlos Cobian to sit at the piano! This was an incredible period for the music of tango. A true renaissance and a fertile ground where the seeds of the future of the music reached deep into the soil to set the roots that would sustain the robust branches that would reach out to the world twenty years ahead.
All along, in the crowded tenements and working class abodes alike, families and neighbors gathered on the communal patios to celebrate many occasions by dancing tangos. The music emanated either from a Victrola, or from the instruments of trios and quartets. The Victor Company of Camden, New Jersey was instrumental, among other record companies, in fostering the spread of the tango across social lines, because first, it had invented the phonograph (and called it Victrola) and second, it wanted to sell records. To that extent it sponsored a stable ensemble of the best local musicians to produce tango records.
When Osvaldo Fresedo jumped ship and joined Max Glucksman’s Odeon label, Adolfo Carabelli, the artistic director of the Victor label decided to form a stable typical orchestra exclusively for recording purposes only. On November of 1925 the Orquesta Tipica Victor was born. Its style was essentially traditional (as opposed to the evolutionary style of De Caro et al.), faithful to the original music score, with an accentuated rhythm aimed to please the dancers, but with an adequate structure to highlight the soloist virtuosity of the many musicians that formed part of the orchestra during the fifteen years of its existence.
With the advent of the radio, the first stations in Buenos Aires filled the airwaves with tango music as well. However, it was the only media that did not offer a steady source of employment to tango musicians. The cafes, cabarets and night clubs along with the movie houses were the artistic scenarios for the tango. Particularly the movie houses where the public would ignore the silent images flickering on the silver screen, and cheer the tangos played by the most notable Sexteto Tipicos led by Julio de Caro, Pedro Maffia, Anselmo Aieta, Francisco Lomuto, Roberto Firpo, Cayetano Puglisi, Juan B. Guido, Ciriaco Ortiz, Francisco Pracanico, Carlos Marcucci, just to briefly name those who may be recognized today because of the recordings available commercially.
Meanwhile, legendary cafes with names like Nacional, Marzotto, Germinal, Los Andes, Chantecler, Maipu Pigall, Folies Bergere, and Charleston, offered a permanent rotation of talent, the innovative music of up and coming musicians Anselmo Aieta, Carlos Di Sarli, Juan Polito, Antonio Bonavena, Juan Canaro, Enrique Pollet (with a young pianist named Osvaldo Pugliese) and the aging Juan Maglio “Pacho.”
In 1933, Elvino Vardaro, possibly the most notable instrumentalist of all times, after having played violin for almost every existent orchestra for over ten years, picked up where Julio de Caro’s early innovation had left off, and gathered a young cadre of musicians that consisted of, possibly one of the most admirable instrumental ensembles: Jose Pascual on piano, Anibal Troilo and Jorge Fernandez on bandoneons, Hugo Baralis on second violin and Pedro Caracciolo on contrabass. The winds of the times were blowing in another direction though, and what is considered by the experts as one of the most interesting and talented orchestras ever, Vardaro et al was never recorded because the recording companies did not consider them commercially viable. Which brings to light a fact that the fate and of tango always rode the crest of the commercial interests of the recording companies.
The immense success of the tango in the decade of the nineteen twenties, which for many who deplore the way D’Arienzo brought about the Golden Years of the tango (dancing), was the true pinnacle of evolution and the Camelot for the fulfillment of De Caro’s prophecy that tango was also music. All came to a halting crash when the first talking movies appeared on the screens of Buenos Aires movie houses. The music that was coming with the films needed to be sold to a new generation of consumers. The orchestras lost an important venue and retreated to the cafes. But the influx of pizzerias and Automats was also getting rid of that traditional Buenos Aires institution. It was an unmerciful assault on many fronts that primarily decimated the sources of employment for the orchestras, severely damaged already, because of their loss of contact with the public through recordings, which now were full fledged promoters of the foreign repertoires influenced by the movie industry.
From a historical point of view, the tango faced its first major collapse when it fell catastrophically out of the favor of a new public blind sided by foreign entertainment propositions. This happened in the earlier part of the nineteen thirties.
The last orchestra to survive the onslaught at the movie houses was the unforgettable Sexteto Tipico Vardaro-Pugliese that played at the Metropol theater on Lavalle Street. There are only oral testimonies reported in written chronicles of the time that remember with nostalgic admiration the sound of the last ensemble that closed with its demise a brilliant itinerary of glory for the tango. They were Elvino Vardaro and Alfredo Gobbi on violins, Ciriaco Ortiz and Anibal Troilo on bandoneons, Luis Adesso on contrabass, and Osvaldo Pugliese on piano, a young group of musicians that would be called years later to have their names imprinted with capital letters in the best history of the tango ever told.