Poncho Sanchez to open new JAS Café venue at Aspen Cooking School

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
At his most recent Aspen performances, in March 2015, Poncho Sanchez showcased Latin jazz arrangements of works by John Coltrane.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

Who: Poncho Sanchez

Where: JAS Café at the Aspen Cooking School

When: Friday, July 22 & Saturday, July 23, 6 & 9:15 p.m.

How much: Early shows/$100 (dinner included); late shows/$45


The JAS Cafe is opening a new venue with an old friend this weekend.

Latin jazz great Poncho Sanchez will headline the first performances in the cafe space at the Aspen Cooking School, which Jazz Aspen Snowmass has added to its rotating lineup of venues (which also includes shows at The Little Nell and Aspen Art Museum this summer).

Perhaps it’s fitting that Sanchez is the first artist to play the basement space at the cooking school: along with his Grammy-winning career as a percussionist, singer and bandleader, he is the author of 2002’s “Poncho Sanchez’ Conga Cookbook,” a unique lesson book that includes his personal recipes.

Outfitted with a full kitchen, the Cooking School venue will offer a rotating three-course menu of items from Rustique Bistro at early 6 p.m. shows. It’s a more robust selection and a departure from the museum shows (where audiences can order food in advance) and from The Little Nell (where can choose from a bar menu).

“In those days it was not called ‘salsa,’ it was just musica Cubana, musica Latina. That’s how long I’ve been in this thing — before they even called salsa ‘salsa.’”Poncho Sanchez

“We’ve found our audiences love to eat before a show,” said Jazz Aspen founder and President Jim Horowitz. After Sanchez christens the new club with four performances today and Saturday, jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander will play shows there Aug. 6 and 7.

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. This weekend marks his third year in a row at the JAS Cafe.

“They’ve got some great jazz fans there,” he told The Aspen Times during his swing through town last year. “They love Latin jazz.”

The altitude slows him down a little more these days, at 64, than it did on his first few trips to town.

“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.”

In concert, Sanchez plays a healthy dose of Latin jazz and dance-friendly salsa music along with the self-styled Latin soul that’s been one of his 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,” he said.

The foundations of his omnivorous sound can be found in Los Angeles in the 1960s, where Latin jazz mixed easily with the Motown and soul 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 recalled. “That’s how long I’ve been in this thing — before they even called salsa ‘salsa.’”

His taste formed around those Latin rhythms, pop music and “American Bandstand.” 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 setup 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 moment: Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria. He recalled the foreboding feeling of approaching the rumba drum circles at Griffith Park in Los Angeles 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 said.

So he moved onto 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 circle’s 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,’” Sanchez 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 rock bands like 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 onstage 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 said. “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. Sanchez 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 doing 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. He showcased some of the new Coltrane arrangements at his most recent Aspen show in 2015.