Latin jazz legend Poncho Sanchez back at JAS Café
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
Who: Poncho Sanchez
Where: JAS Café at the St. Regis
When: Saturday, March 7, 7 & 9:15 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out
More info: jazzaspensnowmass.com
Poncho Sanchez and his band have been making stops in Aspen for a generation now, performing regularly under the auspices of Jazz Aspen Snowmass for three decades.
“They’ve got some great jazz fans there,” he told The Aspen Times during one of his recent swings through town. “They love Latin jazz.”
Sanchez is back at the JAS Café for two shows Saturday night.
The altitude slows him down a little more these days, at 68, 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 intact — 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.