According to Gerald Sloan, Willie Colón “has done more than anyone since Tommy Dorsey to keep [the] trombone before the public eye.” Yet in comparison to jazz trombonists he seems little known in this country. He has been closely associated with a style of Latin music known as salsa. Some Latinos object to the term salsa, which means “sauce,” applied to a musical style. Colón embraces it. After all, it had plenty of idiomatic meanings before it was applied to music.
Different Latin music traditions developed in various Latin American countries. They have certain things in common including a Spanish or Portuguese heritage, the influence of the various pre-European people’s cultures, that of the descendants of African slaves, and jazz.
Colón was born in the South Bronx in 1950. His Latino parents were also born in New York, but his grandmother, born in Puerto Rico, never learned to speak English. His neighborhood included immigrants from many Spanish-speaking countries, including Cuba, Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. The different musical traditions from these countries began to blend together in that neighborhood. Although Latin music in general is sometimes called salsa, the term most properly applies to the mixture that arose in the barrios in American cities.
When Colón was ten, his Puerto Rican grandmother bought him a trumpet. He had to fight to keep others from stealing it. Even so, it was stolen twice, and he switched to trombone because it’s bigger and therefore harder to grab and run away with.
When salsa music was known only in the barrios, Colón and others could write whatever they pleased. The texts often served as a musical newspaper, commenting on people’s sense of being uprooted from familiar surroundings, the realities of discrimination, and even prostitution, drugs, and other crime. Of course salsa has its share of love songs, dances, and celebrations, but Colón became a leader in what he called “conscious salsa,” which uses the music specifically as social commentary.
When the popularity of salsa music spread outside the barrios and attracted the attention of commercial recording companies, that success complicated Colón’s professional life. Commercial songs are usually about four minutes long, and what he considers his best work does not fit in that time frame. As a result it has not been commercially successful here, although many of his longer songs have been hits in Latin America. His political views sometimes seem threatening to corporate interests and sponsors. His choice to work outside commercial constraints undoubtedly explains, at least in part, why his artistry is not better appreciated outside of the Latino community.
To complement his musical celebrity, he visits schools, gives speeches, makes television advertisements, attends cultural events, all to help Latinos maintain pride in their heritage and cultural attainments. (In common with many other ethnic groups, young people often develop a shame that makes them reject their heritage in favor of disappearing into the dominant culture. Why should they lose contact with their heritage just so their children and grandchildren have to struggle to reconnect with it?) He even ran for Congress in 1994.
Although Willie Colón clearly sees his role primarily to speak to and encourage the Latin American population in this country, salsa music itself has won world-wide popularity. Successful salsa bands can be found not only in the United States, but also in Britain, Germany, and Japan.
Gerald Sloan, “Los Huesos: A Closer Look at Latin Trombonists,” ITA Journal 31 (Jan. 2003): 30-47.
Leonardo Padura Fuentes, interview with Willie Colón in Judith Tick, Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008): 786-90.
Willie Colón’s home page