Poncho Sanchez looks back on his early days before JAS Cafè shows
If You Go …
Who: Poncho Sanchez
Where: JAS Café at the Little Nell
When: Friday, March 13 & Saturday, March 14, 7 & 9:30 p.m.
Cost: $35 to $45
Long before he became a Latin jazz legend, before he toured alongside the great Cal Tjader, Poncho Sanchez was another kid in Griffith Park carrying a conga drum and looking for someplace to play.
Sanchez, who plays a two-night run at the JAS Café this weekend, plays shows that typically offer a healthy dose of Latin jazz and dance-friendly salsa music along with the self-styled Latin soul that’s been one of Sanchez’s signatures for decades.
A Poncho Sanchez set might include his take on soul classics by the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
“I try to mix all of those things together, and usually by the end of the set people are having a pretty good time and looking for a dance floor somewhere,” Sanchez said from Los Angeles in a recent phone interview.
The foundations of Sanchez’s sound can be found in Los Angeles in the 1960s, where Latin jazz mixed easily with the Motown and soul sounds of the day.
The youngest of 11 children, Sanchez was born in Laredo, Texas, and moved to Los Angeles at age 12. His first taste of the music he would eventually devote his life to came from his older siblings playing records of the mambo music coming out of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
“In those days it was not called ‘salsa,’ it was just musica Cubana, musica Latina,” he said. “That’s how long I’ve been in this thing — before they even called salsa ‘salsa.’”
Those Latin sounds blended with the pop music of the day and “American Bandstand” to form Sanchez’s tastes. While he’s won Grammys and acclaim for his skills as a drummer, he started out, as a sixth grader, playing guitar in a rhythm and blues band. He eventually started playing drums — a regular trap set, not the conga set-up that made him famous — in a few soul bands.
“Then I got my hands on a conga drum and it just felt right to me,” he said.
He’d hole up in his family garage and play along with records by the greats of the day: Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria. He recalled the foreboding feeling of approaching the rumba drum circles at Griffith Park for the first time in the late 1960s. He first sat in with a big group under a tree in “a crazy hippie smoke-in,” but soon realized he was in the wrong place.
“I started banging on my conga, but after like a half-hour I was like, ‘Man, half of these guys don’t even know what they’re doing,’” he recalled.
So he moved on to a smaller group of Latin drummers. Sanchez recalled tapping on a player’s shoulder, asking if he could join in.
“He said, ‘Are you Cuban?’ I said no. ‘Are you Puerto Rican?’ I said no. ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘Chicano, Mexican-American.’ And he said, ‘Chicanos can’t play congas!”
Eventually, though, he snuck in and won over the band leader, who complimented his skills but still doubted his pedigree.
“He said, ‘Your mother has to be Puerto Rican or your father has to be Cuban?’” he recalled. “I said, ‘No, man. They’re from Mexico.’ He couldn’t believe it. He’d never seen a Mexican-American play like that. That was the very beginning for me.”
Sanchez, from there, started playing congas and singing in the Los Angeles band Sabor, doing gigs at weddings and covering the likes of Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago.
His big break came when an associate of his hero, the legendary percussionist and band leader Cal Tjader, saw him play with Sabor in a small Latin jazz club and told Tjader about Sanchez’s skills on the congas. When Sanchez and his wife went to see Tjader play in Redondo Beach in 1974, much to Sanchez’s surprise, Tjader called him up on-stage to sit in with the band.
“I went up and did one song, did a solo, the crowd went crazy, and Cal said, ‘Stick around for the rest of the set,’” he remembered. “I said, ‘Somebody pinch me. Am I dreaming?’”
The dream set led to a four-night run in Los Angeles and San Diego, and then to seven years playing with Tjader, with whom Sanchez toured the world and won his first Grammy in 1980. He was with Tjader when he died, at 56, of a heart attack while on tour in Manila.
After the shock of losing his mentor, Sanchez set out to carry on his legacy, which he has been in the ensuing decades.
Since then, Sanchez has kept his own eight-piece band in tact — with three horns, piano, bass and an assortment of percussion. He’s been nominated for nine Grammy awards, won twice and was given the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
“I look around sometimes and say, ‘Jesus, how did all this happen?’” he said.
His most recent albums were his 2011 collaboration with New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard, “Chano Y Dizzy,” and a live album the following year. Sanchez’s next project, he said, will be a Latin-style tribute to saxophonist John Coltrane.
Sanchez said he plans to play some of the new Coltrane arrangements at this weekend’s Aspen shows.
Sanchez and his band have been coming to play Aspen for the past 25 years or so, including several performances under the auspices of Jazz Aspen Snowmass. Most recently, he performed with his band last July at the JAS Cafe.
“They’ve got some great jazz fans there,” he said. “They love Latin jazz.”
The altitude slows him down a little more these days, at 63, than it did on his first few trips to town, but not on-stage.
“Twenty years ago it was no problem — stay up all night, you know what I mean?” he laughed. “But nowadays I’ve got to chill and make sure I have a good time.”
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