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Mr. Colón's Opus

If you're dying to learn "Jingle Bells," here's your man.
photo: Tina Zimmer

The creeping commercial disillusionment that caused East Harlem bandleader Johnny Colón to stop recording in the early '70s may have been the best thing to ever happen to music education in New York City.

He scored his first hit, the Latin/blues hybrid "Boogaloo Blues," in 1966 for George Goldner's newly formed Cotique label. Rumor was that George had lost his previous company, Tico, to rival Morris Levy on a bet, and was determined to make his new Latin imprint even hotter. Established Latin acts like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri initially frowned upon the fusion of r&b, jazz, and Latin preferred by younger players like Colón at the time, despite early breakthrough fusions like Mongo Santamaria's "Watermelon Man" and Pete Rodriguez's "I Like It Like That." But the youth market, already grooving to rock and soul, were ready to hear new hybrids, and Colón, who was influenced as much by the Moonglows, Horace Silver, and Cal Tjader as by the infectious Charanga trend then challenging the Latin Boogaloo movement, was always more adventurous and idiosyncratic than his peers.

Convinced by Johnny's club performances that the public would go for his bold, fresh sound, Goldner put all his street muscle behind the single. " 'Boogaloo Blues' had a controversial lyric," Johnny admits now over dinner at an easygoing bar & grill on East 79th Street. "It was, 'L.S.D. has a hold on me.' We always said it meant 'Love, Sincere, Divine,' but radio jocks told Goldner they didn't want to play it. Only Symphony Sid at WEVD said, 'No problem.' "

After Symphony Sid broke the record, massive caller requests made other jocks follow suit. Johnny was immediately in demand on all the right stages and hot radio shows. He was working more than ever before, but the money wasn't right—no royalties or increased concert fees. A staunch member of the musician's union, Johnny went public with his discontent, questioning the Latin industry powers that be. But his band lost important gigs and radio support as a result. He recorded five more albums, first at Cotique and then at Fania's request. But by the early '70s, Johnny was convinced that teaching music and playing noncommercial community gigs were better ways to serve his muse.

Although he didn't incorporate his nonprofit East Harlem Music School until 1972, he'd already been giving free music lessons out of his mother's apartment for almost a decade. Expanding this initiative into a rented workspace with phones, a staff, and a sign over the door was to prove his life's calling. Johnny, an avid multi-instrumentalist who mastered the guitar by age 8 (and bass, piano, trombone, and the human voice before he left high school), still gigged with his band, but he poured everything he made into running his school. Music theory and instrumental instruction remained completely free for many years, until some of his official funding sources demanded the school charge something, if only to remain eligible for various grants. So by 1988 or '89, kids (ages 8 and up) were paying $1 a week, while adults paid $3.25. "Funny thing was," Johnny recalls wryly, "class attendance during summer months improved the minute we began charging a fee!"

The wider renown that eluded Colón as a pop star eventually fell on famous alumni like singer Tito Nieves, percussionist Robin Loeb, pianist/arranger Hilton Ruiz, and Marc Anthony, who stars opposite Jennifer Lopez in the upcoming Hector LaVoe biopic El Cantante. Johnny remembers Anthony coming to the school with his siblings as an earnest young 7-year-old, hungry to learn every aspect of the music business; Johnny also recalls once sharing a stage with salsa legend LaVoe himself, and later teaching LaVoe's son at the school.

But it's not just his world-famous graduates Colón remembers. Johnny still sees ex-students who thank him for facilitating their more modest goals: a central Harlem woman who learned to play piano for her church, a young man who'd almost dropped out of school but now feeds his family by playing music, and various teachers and administrative staffers he trained who went on to help establish similar programs elsewhere. Furthermore, what always made EHMS special was the presence of working musicians like pianist Charlie Palmieri (Eddie's brother), who taught piano at the school for three years. Johnny was especially proud of that hire, since decades earlier Charlie had been among the first pros to encourage Johnny as a 16-year-old bandleader. These circles of mutual empowerment and mutual obligation are part of the value system Johnny instills along with every music lesson.

In 1994, Johnny's second wife, Stephanie, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, leaving him without the administrative backbone of his organization. Public funding had never allowed them to purchase a building or pay competitive wages to retain permanent supplemental staff, so while Johnny was able to limp along without Steph for a few years, by the start of the new millennium he'd had to reduce the scope of his school's operations to a shadow of what they'd been.

Then, around 2004, when his band was asked to play a benefit for several community organizations, he met with Lewis Zuchman, executive director of SCAN New York, who asked Johnny if he'd be willing to outsource his teaching staff and technique in partnership with specific SCAN initiatives. The Supportive Childrens' Advocacy Network is funded to devise and administrate educational programs serving at-risk youth in various urban locations; they struck a deal, and through them Johnny now runs daily classes for second graders at P.S. 114 in the Bronx, and teaches a group of teens at the Isla del Barrio BEACON program, part of the Academy for Environmental Sciences in East Harlem. "I would say without reservation that Johnny is the best music educator in the city," enthused Zuchman by phone. "Especially in using music to teach math and literacy skills."

While Johnny has travelled as far as Germany to demonstrate his unique pedagogic style, his technique still intimidates those who prefer dull, dictatorial, rote strategies. He believes he can get anyone to read music in 15 minutes. "In Germany, I taught 'Jingle Bells,' " he says. "I taught the rhythmic structure first, and in minutes they were reading basic rhythm notation." While he is always willing to outsource his methodology to anyone who asks for it, he finds that more traditional institutions reject his core idea that learning should always be fun and liberating to the student. But recent lecture/presentations he's done for the Caribbean Cultural Center and the Jazz Museum in Harlem suggest that now, when cities most need better music education, Johnny's name quickly comes up.

Eventually, someone may come along to offer the funding and infrastructure needed to relaunch his own institution. But until then, Johnny's decided to start recording again. He's already completed one album of modern American standards as a singer with his jazz trio, and plans to return to the studio soon with his Latin orchestra, in part to challenge some of the foreign reissues of his early work that have been circulating without his permission (or compensation) since the 1990s. The industry's malfeasance hasn't gone away, but Johnny's disillusionment has.


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