Homenaje: Johnny Colón

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“You should always have a song to turn to,” says musician, Johnny Colón. “Music was the common bond in my family. Everybody in the family—we all sang or played.” In fact, Johnny is the nephew of one of Puerto Rico’s more celebrated composers and poets, Fortunato Vizcarrondo. Johnny, himself, is recognized as an accomplished trombonist, singer, composer, and arranger.

What got Johnny started, though, was his grandmother. She sang for him all the time, and she bought him his first little guitar.

“It was really a ukele,” he says. 

Seeing his interest, his mother worked hard to be able to afford the 25-cent lessons. So, Johnny played and played, and he practiced and practiced including on the fenders of those old big cars of the 40s and 50s that lined the neighborhood back in the day.

It was no surprise when Johnny got his first Latin/blues hit, “Boogaloo Blues,” in 1966.  Johnny released five more albums before becoming completely disillusioned with the music business and its treatment of artists, the thievery of ideas, the underpaying of monies, and the “dirty” contracts that stole all rights from musicians, Johnny asserts.  So, in 1972, in his mother’s apartment in the East River Houses in East Harlem, Johnny decided to bring music directly to the neighborhood in a way that was clean and honest and fair. Johnny decided to teach people how to discover the music within them. Thus was born the East Harlem Music School.

The East Harlem Music School moved from location to location until it finally found its most famous home on East 104th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. In its nearly thirty-year history, Johnny estimates that over 20,000 children and thousands more adults passed through its classroom doors. Many a Grammy nominee or winner in the Latin categories can claim that they taught or worked with Johnny.

“Music brings people together and breaks down barriers,” Johnny says with a smile.

And, this is exactly what Johnny did with his life—he followed the music in his heart and he found a way to share it with others.

© Ricardo Muñiz. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 5 June 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.