Edouard Pecourt

MUSIC—The Love Song of Edouard Pecourt

(From Summer/Fall 2007)

50 Years and 50,000 Tangos

Modern music lovers immediately recognize the iPod, a sliver of plastic the slimmest of which is smaller than a package of gum. This little device that can be concealed in the palm of a teenager’s hand plays hours of continuous music. That’s wonderful news for the average teenager. But it means little to Edouard Pecourt, who at 81 isn’t your average teenager.

Neither is Edouard—whose eyes sparkle and who walks with the chest-forward, upright carriage of a youthful explorer—the average 81-year-old.

Music authority Edouard Pecourt. Photo: © 2010 Greg Tozian

A tour of Edouard’s labyrinthine house, ringed by tall evergreen trees outside of Portland, Oregon, is like investigating a gigantic musical time capsule—some rooms of which seem to have been sealed a century ago. There is nothing diminutive about any of Edouard’s 100 music players. Many, with their giant, tulip-shaped horns attached, are difficult to lift from the floor. These “phonographs” don’t play a dozen hours of tunes. Most can only play three minutes of music, none of it recorded in the past half century. But when you turn the crank on one of these old spring-wound machines, set a heavy shellac 78 rpm record the size of a pizza on the turntable, and gingerly place the needle in the groove, the sound horn—be it wood, metal or glass—emits a wave of nostalgic, spine-chilling melody that the majority of people alive today have never heard.

“This record is very clear, do you hear?” asks Edouard, after he drops the needle on an obscure South American tango recording from the 1920s. “This sound horn, it is made out of crystal.”

Before Music, in Paris

Edouard Pecourt was born on the fabled hillside of Montmartre, on the Ides of March, 1925. It was the year that the Paris Exposition launched upon the world a new aesthetic called Art Deco and the sounds of Musette Swing spilled from neighborhood cabarets and music halls like Le Chat Noir and the Moulin Rouge. The year Edouard was born, the musical genius Eric Satie died in his lonely room along with his giant collection of umbrellas, seven velvet suits, and a handful of priceless, undiscovered scores that had fallen carelessly behind the piano.

Edouard’s father dead, and his mother otherwise predisposed, he found himself at eight years old the ward of a strict boy’s school. “There I had to learn to fight,” he says. “I fought. I was the leader of our little gang. And as the leader you have to fight. But we were not a bad gang of boys.”

Five months after Edouard’s 15th birthday, Adolph Hitler brought his traveling troupe to Paris for the brutal game of cat-and-mouse that was known as the Occupation. Edouard said that he was always good with languages, and picked up German pretty quickly. His facility with the language got him out of several scrapes with the Nazis, including the night he fell asleep in a park and was awakened long after curfew by some soldiers. In German, he talked his way out of being arrested.

“The Germans made a big mistake,” Edouard says. “They took all the good food for themselves. The apartment building where we were living,” he says, “one winter we lived on rutabagas. That’s all we had.” Having heard of a farmer outside of Paris who could supply meat for a price, Edouard, then a teenager, collected money from his neighbors and took a large empty suitcase by train, then by foot for miles to the entrepreneurial farmer. “He killed a lamb, and I took this all the way back to Paris,” says Edouard. “I was scared. But the Germans did not discover me.”

During the Occupation, Edouard began working as a shoe repairman, making 30 francs (two or three dollars) a day. Then a neighboring businessman asked him if he wanted to repair fountain pens. Edouard thought it would be a cleaner line of work, and went into pen repair. After the war, and after years of running his own business—selling fountain pens, and the then-novel ballpoint—Edouard met a woman who supplied Arabic music records to the large North African population of Paris. “It was about 1949, and this woman asked me if I wanted to sell records at the flea market along with my pens,” Edouard says. “I did not mind. And that is how I found music.”

Three-Minute Operas

Though he never devoted much thought to the Arabic records he sold, Edouard had a real desire to learn to speak Spanish. To his delight, he found that he could teach himself the sister romance vocabulary by listening carefully to the lyrics of Spanish-language records he found at the flea markets—Cuban rumbas, flamencos and mariachi music from Mexico. But his favorite records were tangos from Argentina, he says. “They have been called operas in three minutes,” says Edouard. “Because every record tells a story. Usually, it is, ‘This guy is alone because she left him.’” Before long, Edouard had assembled a large collection of tango records. “In the early 1950s, nobody in Paris was listening to tango,” he says. “The biggest time for tango was before the first [world] war. These records just weren’t worth too much to people after that. But I liked them.”

One of Edouard's fantastic, ancient music machines.

With the phenomenal worldwide renaissance in tango dancing these days, it seems hard to believe, but between his introduction to the music in 1949 and the mid 1980s, Edouard Pecourt did not have much competition in his goal of being the most avid and successful collector of tango records in Paris. His 30-year streak of having his pick of the best of these records, which he has ferreted out on several continents—has left him with an astounding collection of some 50,000 tango recordings in the antiquated 78 rpm format alone. He has thousands of others on 33 1/3 rpm discs, and CDs.

At the end of 1953, Edouard, then 28, had become sufficiently obsessed with his music collection to buy the record store where he often purchased tango records. Located at 58 bis de la rue du Louvre, in the 2nd Arrondissment, he called the store La Boîte à Disques (the Record Box). Here he sold second-hand phonographs, cylinder-playing machines (which are older than record-playing phonographs), and records and cylinders of recorded music.

Mr. Piazzolla, I Presume

The year after he opened his record store, a friend of Edouard’s who worked at the National Radio of France asked him if he would like to come to a café in the rue du Faubourg Saint Martin “to meet some music people.” “I was happy to go,” says Edouard.

Upon entering the café, Edouard was shocked to see that one of the men at the little booth was the then 33-year-old Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla was known well in his hometown of Buenos Aires as a controversial tanguero (tango aficionado), bandoneon player and composer. Though he was not yet widely known among the European public, Edouard recognized the composer-musician from pictures he had seen in Argentine magazines.

Piazzolla had come to Paris at the invitation of the French government to study classical composition with Nadia Boulanger, then the world’s most celebrated music teacher. He had received the invitation after he won first prize for his orchestral piece, “Buenos Aires”, at the Fabien Savitzky competition. The modern, three-movement piece inspired public fighting in Argentina because Piazzolla had used a couple of traditional bandoneons in an orchestra concert. Strong pro-Piazzolla and anti-Piazzolla contingents developed.

Early during his compositional training, teacher Boulanger advised Piazzolla to abandon classical music for the tango, which she believed he felt more deeply. Piazzolla described the advice as “an epiphany.” Eventually, the nuevo tango he would create—incorporating elements of avant garde jazz and classical music— changed and expanded the sound of Argentine music for all time. This “new tango” won Piazzolla the title “The Great Astor” in several languages. But that afternoon in the Paris café, in 1954, Edouard Pecourt and Astor Piazzolla bonded merely because they both loved a music that was little appreciated outside of South America.

Shortly after their first meeting, Piazzolla became a periodic visitor to Edouard’s record store. The two men took their wives, and Edouard’s V-8 Ford, on a several-week road trip to Italy, which Piazzolla had never seen. The composer even went so far as to dedicate to his friends “Mr. and Mrs. Pecourt,” the composition “Chau Paris,” one of 16 tangos he recorded during his first stay in Paris.

In the ensuing years, Edouard Pecourt’s passion for tango escalated. Piazzolla invited Edouard to recording sessions frequently, including one in Paris for which the pianist was Argentine musician Lalo Schiffrin (later famous as the U.S. TV and movie composer of such tunes as the theme to “Mission Impossible”).

On his first trip to Argentina in 1961, Edouard’s airplane was five hours late. “Ooh la la,” says Edouard today, “when I arrived on the ground, there were 14 people waiting for me, and Piazzolla was there.”

In 1964, Edouard let Piazzolla and his first wife, Dede, stay with him on a three-month sojourn in Paris. “I had bought a bandoneon at the Paris flea market,” Edouard says. “And one of my best memories is the day that Piazzolla took my bandoneon and played it for me in my house. Just the two of us.”

The bandoneon is, of course, the signature instrument of the tango. While similar in look and sound to the accordion, it has a richer, more plaintive tone. Responding to periodic comparisons between the two instruments, Piazzolla liked to end all discussion and lend his favorite credence by saying of the bandoneon, “It was made to play sad music.” Edouard still has the circa-1920, Aaron brand bandoneon upon which Piazzolla gave him a private concert. It’s a handsome, jet-black instrument, distinguished by mother-of-pearl inlay, made in Germany, where the instruments were invented in the 1830s.

Over a period of some 30 years, Edouard and Piazzolla maintained a long-distance relationship by letter and postcard. Some of the letters make fascinating reading, such as the one Edouard received in 1955, alerting him to Piazzolla’s decision to form the Octeto Buenos Aires, which shortly thereafter gave birth to the “new tango” music movement.

Edouard also saw Piazzolla in concert many times—in Paris, New York, Buenos Aires and Seattle. He also saw the maestro in Eugene, Oregon, on May 12, 1989, three days before Edouard’s 64th birthday. That night, after the show, Edouard and his American wife, Jocelyn, who plays Piazzolla compositions beautifully on the piano, dined with the composer and the musicians. It would be the last time the two old friends would meet.

Piazzolla—who wrote some 1,000 musical works in his life—died at the age of 71, on July 4, 1992 in Buenos Aires. Edouard made a trip back to the city in November of 1996, to renew contact with Argentine friends, to participate in scholarly discussions of tango music and attend concerts, and to visit Piazzolla’s grave.

“In the ’50s when we met,” says Edouard, “I didn’t realize he was a genius. He was just, Astor, a tango friend. It was only later that I understood his contribution.”

The Pecourt Collection

In Edouard Pecourt’s tango record collection—one of the most complete in the world—he has “every Piazzola original disc that was officially published anywhere in the world.” This massive collection even includes a pristine copy of Piazzolla’s first appearance (uncredited) on a record, playing the bandoneon as a teenager in 1932, in the U.S., on a double-sided, 78 rpm tango with orchestra leader Andreas D’Aquila.

Among his 50,000 tango records, Edouard has more than 1,000 recordings by Carlos Gardel, the legendary baritone superstar singer of tango. An entire room of Edouard’s house is filled, floor to ceiling, with thousands of other recordings by orchestras, singers and composers. He also has many thousands of records—old and new—in many other genres of music, including jazz and world music. His oldest record, Edouard says, is an 1896 recording of tenor Ferruccio Giannini singing “It’s Not True,” on an Emile Berliner disc. That relic has the artist’s name and the song name, as well as the date, “Nov. 17, [18]96,” scratched by hand in the shellac record, as was then the practice in the record-making process.

Winding one’s way past shelving that also holds what may be one of the world’s largest collections of antique French postcards from every “department” in France, visitors to Edouard Pecourt’s personal museum can find a room with more ancient phonographs—those which play 78 rpm records, and those which play the older brown, blue and black wax cylinders of varying sizes.

“In Paris, I had 500 working machines,” says Edouard. “Now, he says nonchalantly, “I only have about 100. It is not what you would call a large collection. But,” he adds raising an eyebrow, “I have some unusual things.”

Near the top of the rarities, is a charming, lightweight red cardboard box only about eight inches tall, called “Le Merveilleux” (“the wonderful,” or “the marvelous”). The little box, built by clockmaker and talking-doll manufacturer Henri Lioret as a tiny phonograph for children in France in 1895, is marvelous indeed. It still perfectly plays its little, 30-second-duration wax discs. Edouard says he believes there are very few of the machines left in the world, and it’s hard to tell what condition they may be in.

“My intention was never to collect these machines,” says Edouard, looking over some of his marvels. “Like any collector, if I had three of something, and there were only five models, then I would say, ‘Well, why not get the other two?’ I have loved them. But more, I love the recordings. I love music over the machines.”

When asked what his favorite music is, Edouard just smiles. “It is tango,” says Edouard. “I love the rhythm, the tempo. It is like breathing. When I listen to that rhythm, I feel I’m listening to someone breathing.”

And when asked his favorite recordings, Edouard smiles again. “The genius, Piazzolla,” he says. “The more you listen, the more you discover. You can’t discover it all in one listening. With Piazzolla you must listen many times.”