The ITA's Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes people - living or deceased - who have distinguished themselves by their contributions to the trombone profession over a long career. If you added further qualifications such as selling over 30 million records, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and a Chubb fellowship from Yale, running for Congress, being a licensed pilot and playing a DEA agent on TV, Willie Colón would still be eligible.
Gerald Sloan, professor of music at the University of Arkansas in an article stated, "Willie Colón has probably done more than anyone since Tommy Dorsey to keep the trombone before the public. Stylistically the are poles apart, Dorsey representing an ultra-smooth approach, Colón a Hard-edged roughness reportedly inspired by Barry Rogers. Unfortunately, Colón's public was largely Latino, so his music and contribution have gone unnoticed or ignored by the general press". Critic Norman Weinstein has stated, "Willie Colón is to the history of Latin music what Don Drummond was to Jamaican ska and J.J. Johnson was to jazz".
A pioneer of what has come to be known as "salsa" William Anthony Colón Román was born in 1950 in South Bronx, New York, Raised by his paternal grandmother, he grew up surrounded by the sounds and images of "our heroes" Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez and Charlie Palmieri. He spent the summers on the farm of his aunt near Manatí, Puerto Rico, where he absorbed the music and cultural traditions of the island.
At the age of 11, his grandmother bought him a trumpet and he began to take lessons from a neighbor. At 13, he formed his first "conjunto", or group. "I was like a street musician and we used to pass the hat around. I had a kid who played accordion, I played trumpet, then another guy played clarinet and there was a conga player. We called the group "The Dandies", and we used to set up in front of the bar and play. People used to throw quartets at us; when we stopped, they'd throw dollars... but when I heard Barry Roger's trombone solo on this song called "Dolores" I didn't want to play trumpet anymore. I'd heard Barry roaring and ripping into that trombone, so that's what I wanted to play".
The trombone has always been a presence in the music of the Caribbean, appearing in the Cuban "orquestas típicas"near the end of the 18th century. These ensembles faded in the 1920s, replaced by the smaller "charanga" (which did not use trombones) and jazz bands (which did). In the early 1960s, pianist and "salsa" pioneer Eddie Palmieri formed "Conjunto La Perfecta, which replaced the charanga's traditional violins with two trombones, one of whom was Barry Rogers.
At about the same time, Puerto Rican musician Efrain "Mon" Rivera was leading a popular orchestra that featured an all-trombone (4) brass section. These two influences formed the basis of Willie's decisions to use trombones as the dominant sound of his music. At the age of 15, Willie was signed to Fania Records and at 17 recorded his first album "El Malo".
This album brought Willie together with a young Puerto Rican singer named Héctor Lavoe (who had changed his name from Pérez) and was, according to "Salsa Chronicler" César Miguel Rondón, "of terrible quality, riddle with glaring deficiencies, and... a total success": It sold 300.000 copies and established Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe as emerging stars, ensuring that the trombone would be the principal instrumental voice of "Salsa". Later on, I had jazz players like Grover Washington and Willie Campbell showing up at the gig and they're asking me [about it], but I didn't know what I was doing. It was just basically an instinctive kind of thing. We had a mixture of really rough, brassy, harsh trombones and a rhythm section. And on a couple of songs, we had Dwight Brewster playing a very light kind of jazzy piano. It was an interesting thing that happened".
With his next several albums, Willie affected the image of a gangster and he's been known as "El Malo" ever since. In a interview with Frank J. Oteri for the online magazine "New Music Box" Willie explained, "I grew up on 139th Street, and it was a really rough neighborhood. I had my horn stolen a couple of times. I'd have to do all kind of things to make people not want to mess with me... So I got the nickname El Malo and they left me alone. But it was basically a tongue-in-cheek thing, too... it was always a joke. [...]
This image did, however, help to emphasize the music of Willie Colón as coming from the barrio. Over the next several years, Willie and Héctor lavoe recorded 11 albums together and rose to international fame. On August 21, 1971, Fania records assembled its "All Stars", including Willie and Héctor, for a concert at the Cheetah ballroom on 52nd street in Manhattan. This event was recorded and the popularity of the albums and films from that night resulted in, in the words of César Rondón, the "establishment of salsa as a complete and novel form of music".
In 1973, Willie became a producer, doing a number of albums with Héctor Lavoe as well as collaborations (as producer and performer) with other stars such as Celia Cruz, Mon Rivera, and Rubén Blades. Also during this time, he undertook studies in theory, composition, and orchestration and his work with Blades resulted in several albums including, in 1978, "Siembra", the biggest selling "Salsa" album of all time. By the end of the 1970s, the popularity of Willie Colón and his music had spread throughout Latin America.
In describing his music Willie has said, "A lot of people like to characterize salsa as a pastiche of Cuban son. There's no denying that there is a Cuban influence and a Cuban base to it, but it's so much more. Salsa is not a rhythm, it's a concept. It's a way of making music. It's an open concept and the reason that it became so popular is because it was able to evolve and accept all of these other music. We put the "Bombas" and "Plenas" in it; we put "calypso, samba, bossa, and cumbia" in it. It's definitely not even a Puerto Rican or a Cuban music. It's a reconciliation of everything you can find. And I think it could have only happened here in New York, where you had so many different kinds of people living and playing together. We used to get a lot of the black jazz players. They wanted to come and play salsa so they can blow over the changes. Where are you going to find players like than other than in a big city like New York? This was not going to happen in Cuba or Puerto Rico; it had to be here" According to his website, www.williecolon.com, "as a musician, composer, arranger, singer, and trombonist, as well as producer and director, Willie Colón still holds the all-time record for sales.
ITA member Luis Flores was likewise inspired to become a trombonist after listening to Willie’s recordings as a child in Miami. He is an acknowledged expert on the music and career of Willie Colón and provided the author invaluable information and insight.
So what’s it like for a trombonist playing the music of Willie Colón? Via email, Ozzie Melendez reported, “I really enjoyed playing his music. For about 15 years, I had the pleasure of playing lead bone and for the past 6 years was the musical director. Playing these parts is very exhausting on the chops. If you are not in shape… forget it! You really can’t coast. The music doesn’t allow for that. He always wants it [full throttle] Anything other than that, he’ll say … “sounds like you’re sitting down”*
Now 60, Willie shows no signs of sitting down himself. As busy as he is working for the City of New York, his 2010 calendar was full, with performances all over the world, including Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, and a number of cities in central and south America. Willie also enjoys aviation and holds a private pilot certificate.
Considering the place of the trombone and its importance in the music of Willie Colón and how that sound was central to its popularity, a case should be made that Willie deserves considerably more from the trombone community. Where else are the trombone players always the stars? Now that he has been awarded ITA’s life time achievement award, it might be time to consider a place for his statue.