Band Leader: A Q&A With Willie Colón

Few mayoral candidates have a Grammy-winning trombonist writing jingles for their campaigns. But Bill Thompson has salsa legend Willie Colon composing paeans in his corner. Colon spoke with City & State reporter Aaron Short about the problems of stop-and-frisk police tactics, his feud with the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, and why he doesn’t mind that Big Pun and Jay-Z sample his music in their rap songs.

City & State: When did you first meet Bill Thompson, and why are you supporting him for mayor this year?
Willie Colon: It must have been back in 2000. I met him at a couple of political things. He seemed to be a pretty humble, levelheaded kind of guy. I was impressed. He’s a sweet guy. Through the years I’ve known him to be a rock… He’s got a lot of stamina and he’s shown a lot of integrity in the way he behaves. I think with his history and the kind of work he’s done as an executive or administrator—he’s not a legislator. He’s got the Board of Education experience, as comptroller he understands the economics. You don’t have to explain the minority thing; he’s lived it. He’s got what it takes to humanize the city again.

C&S: What do you think are the most important issues of the campaign?
WC: Stop-and-frisk has really loomed large; education is really important. I think stop-and-frisk, the police state situation we’re living in in New York.

C&S: What issues are not getting enough attention?
WC: As a musician I have to say not having enough arts and music in the schools anymore.

C&S: Candidates are courting the Latino vote by releasing Spanish-language television ads. Is that going to work?
WC: I think it needs to be done. There’s a lot of people you have to reach out to through the channels they watch on TV, in their music, and enter their culture. It’s the way things are. They live in the other New York. And I think it’s really necessary to get their attention, to get to know the candidates, their names and faces and what they stand for.

C&S: What’s the other New York?
WC: The haves and the have-nots. And it also relates to stop-and-frisk. The profiling, the people who can walk down the street, people who can walk down the street without fear or being bothered by police so they don’t have to worry about the bad guys. It’s gone too far, and in general in the whole country, in the name of antiterrorism and fighting crime, and infringing on constitutional rights.

C&S: What about “Carlos Danger”? Is Weiner’s online alias offensive?
WC: You know, that’s really unfortunate. I think Weiner should just drop out. It’s kind of a sideshow now. It’s a distraction. It just shows that he has some serious problems. I don’t see how he’s going to have time to be mayor with his hobbies.

C&S: You’re on Twitter. Do you understand sexting?
WC: I think people do it for different reasons. People don’t think it’s that bad, but when it’s someone who you put so much trust in and there’s lying and they get caught, I think that’s just as bad as sexting. I don’t understand the need to have to do that.

C&S: There are Latino candidates in the race: Adolfo Carrión and Erick Salgado. Why haven’t they gotten more support from Latinos, or anyone else, in the polls?
WC: Latinos are brand loyal… [They’re] really strong Democratic voters. It’s hard to get them to go Republican and these other lines. Also, maybe it’s a lack of funds… Name recognition. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things.

C&S: Will Latinos vote in a bloc, or will Puerto Ricans and Dominicans split their vote? And what about Mexicans, Cubans and Central Americans?
WC: We’re all very different. We’re not a monolith, but there are certain things that ring true for all of us. Stop-and-frisk hits it on the head. To others we are all exactly the same; there’s no difference between us. Puerto Ricans are not concerned with immigration, because they’re born American citizens. Dominicans and other Central Americans are concerned about immigrant affairs.

C&S: You ran for Public Advocate in 2001. Why did you run?
WC: I think it’s important for us to participate, to show that we matter, that we’re there. If you don’t address our needs, then one of us is going to run.

C&S: Would you ever run for office again, and, if so, what would you do differently?
WC: I don’t think so, but I’ll keep my options open. My main problem was raising money. Money is so important to these races… I have a lot of trouble getting on the phone and begging people for money.

C&S: What do you think about the current public advocate? Is he doing a good job?
WC: It’s a pretty honorary, symbolic gig now. Toothless, has no budget. I couldn’t blame him for not getting much done because there’s not a lot he can do. The last one who really did something was Mark Green. That was mostly because he had a lot of energy and guts and he was always in people’s faces. No, de Blasio is nothing very remarkable. I don’t really want to bash him, but he’s unimpressive.

C&S: Do you have a favorite in this year’s public advocate race?
WC: No, I don’t even know them.

C&S: You’re from the South Bronx. How has it changed from when you grew up there?
WC: Like Bill [Thompson], my family came to New York in the early 1900s. I was born and raised in the Bronx, and my parents were born and raised in Spanish Harlem. There’s been small changes, not big. It’s still in need of a lot of everything. You look at the way the Barclays Center has made Brooklyn pop and 125th Street in Harlem is buzzing—and when you go into the Bronx, it’s like crossing the border. It’s still kind of abandoned.

C&S: Have Bloomberg’s policies made it more livable for residents? Is it susceptible to gentrification?
WC: The important thing is, where do you put all these people you move out with gentrification? You need affordable housing for everyone. It’s a Rubik’s cube for human beings. Infrastructure and things like that, Bloomberg did a lot of things that were good. I think the city needs to go in another direction now, a little more human treatment of citizens.

I don’t think all gentrification is bad. But what are you going to do with all these people in the projects? The projects are like cemeteries for the living. The conditions in the projects are not great. … I grew up on 139th street and St. Anns Ave. Those things have been abandoned for so long. I think they can be revitalized, bring some money in, jobs. And they’ll give us businesses.

C&S: What’s your next album about?
WC: I’m thinking of putting together an all-star group. Find a bunch of good musicians, do an album and go on the road for a season before I hang up the trombone. It’s about six months. Half the year.

C&S: Do you play any other instruments besides trombone?
WC: Yes. When I compose I write on the keyboard, so piano.

C&S: Where do you keep your Grammy?
WC: It’s on my piano.

C&S: Who is the nicest person in music, and who is the meanest?
WC: I could say Celia Cruz. She was the easiest person I produced and the biggest star. There’s a lot of competition for the meanest. I’m going to pass on that.

C&S: What do you think about Latino musicians who have waded into hip-hop, such as Eazy-E and Big Pun, as well as newcomers like Pitbull?
WC: I think we have to thank Ronald Reagan for the rap and hip-hop era, where people stopped concentrating on writing and instruments. They composed stuff by sampling and stuff like that. I’m probably the most sampled Latin artist. Everyone’s done some of my work, [including] Big Pun and Jay-Z.

C&S: What do you think about Big Pun and Jay-Z sampling your work?
WC: I kind of resent it, but receiving the checks is not bad.

C&S: Do you listen to any of them?
WC: Not really. I’m not into one kind of music, even salsa. It depends on what mood I’m in. I like to listen to something where I don’t know where it came from and I try to find out what it is.

C&S: What are you listening to now?
WC: I was listening to a political protest. Gaita from Venezuela. It’s about the problems in Venezuela. It’s a traditionally political song, and the chorus is a group of men, eight guys. It’s a big, roaring chorus, with a rhythm section, the changes, and it’s usually written in a 6/8. I love it. It has a lot of balls. They go all out, and they’re complaining about the scarcity of food in the stores. Somebody sent it to me. I’ve been involved in Latin American politics also. I had a feud with [Hugo] Chavez… [President] Nicholás Maduro said I should stop meddling in Venezuelan politics. I wrote the jingle for the challenger’s campaign. He won, but Maduro stole it.

C&S: Did you meet with Chavez when he came to the Bronx?
WC: No, I didn’t. Chavez was a real disappointment to me. He made a lot of promises, and he betrayed everything. He wanted to be the next Napoleon, the liberator of Latin America, but the Venezuelan economy has been dragged into bankruptcy. It’s chaos there now.

C&S: If you could write a song for Bill Thompson, what kind of beat would it have, and what would you call it?
WC: I wrote a couple of things for him. He’s got one that’s a murga rhythm. And that’s a hybrid of Panamanian and Puerto Rican. I like making hybrid sounds of different Latin American countries. And there’s another one called “Transforming New York”—it’s kind of like a ballad, and it breaks into a salsa beat. I did three things for him.

C&S: Have you ever talked with Thompson about music?
WC: I haven’t been able to talk with him about music this time around. I met him at the Dominican Parade breakfast. It went pretty good. I was really impressed with the kind of support he has from the Dominicans. They’re all strongly behind him.

C&S: What’s your favorite New York City parade?
WC: The Puerto Rican Parade and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They’re so big and wild and crazy and massive. I love it. I don’t know which one is wilder—and I mean that in the nicest way.

An earlier version of this story appeared in our print edition on Aug. 19, 2013.