Home Interviews IN CONVERSATION WITH “KEEPER OF THE FLAME,” PONCHO SANCHEZ

IN CONVERSATION WITH “KEEPER OF THE FLAME,” PONCHO SANCHEZ

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Poncho Sanchez is a highly imaginative and influential percussionist in the Afro-Cuban jazz genre. He has performed with several renowned artists, such as The Jazz Crusaders, Eddie Harris, Freddie Hubbard, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, and Terence Blanchard. Sanchez joined Cal Tjader’s band in 1975 and remained with the group until Tjader died in 1982. During this time, he recorded two albums, Poncho (1979) and Straight Ahead (1980), and performed with his group.

Sanchez was born in Laredo, Texas, and moved to Los Angeles at four. He was influenced by the music he heard in his Chicano neighborhood. Initially, he played the guitar and performed with rhythm & blues bands in junior high and high school. Later, he taught himself to play congas and spent hours practicing the records of Cal Tjader, Machito, and Tito Puente. He was also profoundly influenced by the sounds of the Jazz Crusaders. Sanchez’s efforts paid off when his album Latin Soul (1999) won a Grammy in the Latin Jazz category. He continued to record throughout the next decades, releasing albums such as Soul of the Conga (2000), Latin Spirits (2001), and Out of Sight! (2003), Do It! (2005), Raise Your Hand (2007), and Psychedelic Blues (2009), which was influenced by hard bop.

In 2011, Sanchez paid tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, followed by Live in Hollywood with his Latin Jazz band. Currently, Sanchez performs mainly on the West Coast and is working on a tribute to the late John Coltrane, tentatively scheduled for release in May 2019.

IN CONVERSATION

TP: You grew up in Norwalk, a suburb of Los Angeles, during the 1950s, during a time when Cuban music was rarely heard, and Latin recordings were difficult to come by, yet somehow your sisters managed to get swept up in the Mambo craze. How did that happen?
PS: My family moved to Norwalk from Laredo, Texas, in 1954. There were eleven of us: five brothers and six sisters. My sisters used to listen to the radio. They were big fans of DJ Chico Sesma, who hosted a one-hour show on KOWL in Santa Monica. Chico was a trombone player, radio show host, and promoter who organized the Latin dances at the Hollywood Palladium. He booked Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez from New York, Cal Tjader from the West Coast, and many other big names.
(From 1949 to 1957, Lionel Sesma, better known as Chico Sesma, hosted an innovative bilingual broadcast on KWOL in Santa Monica, California).
TP: So Chico was the culprit! What became of him?
PS: Radio show host Jose Rizo and I visited Chico about three years ago. I think he is about 80 years old now. He’s moving a little slow, but he perked right up during the visit. During lunch, Chico pulled out a slew of black & white photos taken at the Hollywood Palladium during the 1950s and 60s. When Jose and I saw them, we flipped! At one point, Chico handed them to me and asked me to look for my sisters. Hanging with Chico was great.
TP: There is a connection between Chico Sesma and the tune “Con Sabor Latino.”
PS: “Con Sabor Latino” was Chico‘s theme song. The tune, which dates to 1961 or 1962, was composed by pianist Rene Touzet. It hasn’t been touched since then.
(“Con Sabor Latino” appears on Rene Touzet’s recording, titled “Too Much – Mr. Cha Cha Cha – Rene Touzet” on Capitol Records).
PS: Through Chico’s show, my sisters first heard the Mambo and the Pachanga.
TP: Also, the Mambo and the Pachanga took New York by storm during the late 50s and early 60s.
PS: Over here too. My sisters used to dance the Pachanga every night. They didn’t call Latin music “Salsa.” It was called Mambo, Cha Cha, etc. It wasn’t until later that the word “Salsa” became popular.
TP: What are the odds that a group of Chicanas would become enamored with Cuban music and they would have such a tremendous impact on you?
PS: Slim. We are Mexican American. Chicanos from Texas. We are not Cuban or Puerto Rican. Acid Rock and groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream were famous when I grew up. I cared little for rock music. My preference was rhythm and blues and black music. I listened to rock because my friends liked it, but I played Horace Silver, Joe Cuba, and Tito Rodriguez when they visited my garage, where we hung out. My friends used to say, “Hey man, that’s old people’s music; take that shit off!”
TP: Obviously, you were ahead of your time.
PS: Many are still my friends, and that’s what they tell me.
TP: Was there something or someone that influenced you to play the drums?
PS: I played the congas in my garage.
TP: Have you ever taken a formal lesson?
PS: No, I have never taken a formal lesson.
TP: You came up the old-fashioned way. Playing with records, jamming on street corners, parks, and rumbas.
PS: Ramon Banda and I used to hang out often, and someone told us that the best drummers jammed at Griffith Park in Santa Monica on Sunday afternoons. So we went on a Sunday and saw a bunch of “Americanos” sitting underneath a giant oak tree, drinking, smoking pot, and playing some weird stuff. We jammed with them for a while and tired of it. Then someone told us that the best drummers played at the top of a hill, so we went there, and there were a bunch of Cubans and Puerto Ricans chanting and playing rumba. When I asked if I could sit in, they said, “No!” Then, one guy asked me if I was Cuban or Puerto Rican. When I told him I was a Chicano, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “You can’t play!” Ramon and I stood under the hot sun watching them play for about an hour, and then the guy playing the Quinto (lead drum) jumped up … I think he went to get a beer or something … and I took the opportunity to jump behind the drum and played (imitates the sound of the lead drum with his voice). Anyway, they let me sit in for about five or ten minutes. Finally, one of them said, “Oye Suena Bien!” (Sounds good!). Then he asked me if my mother was Puerto Rican or my father was Cuban! They couldn’t accept that a Mexican-American could play the drums.
TP: I have been to quite a few rumbas. I observed that there is a strict hierarchy and don’t appreciate “outsiders.” What happened after that?
PS: After about three years, I started playing with local bands in my area. At the time, none of the local groups were playing Salsa. Eventually, I hooked up with a band called “Sabor,” who mainly played Top 40 stuff – music by Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Chicago. Besides playing the congas, I was also singing. Eventually, I brought in Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, and Joe Bataan tunes. Tunes like “Para Puerto Rico Voy,“ “I Wish You, Love,” “Come Candela” and “Besame Mama.”
TP: When did you play with “Sabor?”
PS: Let’s see, I played with Cal Tjader in 1975, so it must have been around 1972. I played with a local band, went to Griffith Park on Sundays, and played with “Sabor.” We were playing at the International Press Club, and this guy who stuck out like a sore thumb walked in. Between sets, I walked over to the bar to get a beer, and he shook my hand and said, “Hey man, you sound perfect. “ Then he offered to buy me a drink and told me that he was a personal friend of Cal Tjader, and I thought to myself, “Yeah right, this guy is full of shit.” As I left, I told the guy, Ernie, who is still alive today, “Don’t forget to tell your friend Cal Tjader about me.” When I returned to the bandstand, I said to the guys, “See that guy over there? He’s a personal friend of Cal Tjader,” they all laughed. Two weeks later, Cal Tjader came to town and played at Howard Rumsey’s Concerts by the Sea. I used to go there to see everybody that came into town – Mongo, Willie Bobo, Ray Barretto. When we got there, I was walking down the stairs, and that very same guy was talking to Cal Tjader. When he saw me, he said, “Hey, Cal, there he is, Poncho Sanchez,” he introduced me to Cal. So Cal says, “My good friend Ernie tells me you are a good conga player. Would you like to sit in with my band?”
TP: You must have been a nervous wreck. Do you remember the name of the tune?
PS: I think it was “Manteca.” When I got on stage, Cal asked me to lay out during the breaks and come in with the rhythm section. So the band started up. I took a solo on the breaks, and the crowd reacted. Later, Cal said, “Man, you sound great; how did you know the breaks? We haven’t recorded that tune yet.” I told him I had seen his band play six months earlier and remembered the breaks. He was amazed by my remembering everything after seeing him perform once. Anyway, Cal let me sit in for the rest of the set, and afterward, he asked me for the number and told me he might use me the next time he came to my name and photo L.A. Afterwards, I had a few drinks to celebrate the occasion and calm down. Two weeks later, Cal called me and asked me to play with his band for five nights at the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, opposite Carmen Mc Rae. So New Year’s Eve came, and we got there, and I was lugging my congas through the lobby like an idiot. I wore my best shirt and my best slacks (Laughs). After the set, Cal hugged me and said, “You know, man, you sound great; the gig is yours.”
At first, I thought he was talking about playing with him sometimes, but then he said, “No man, the gig is yours.” Meaning he wanted me to be a permanent member of his band. When working at an aluminum foundry during the day, to make matters worse, I had just been laid off, and my unemployment was about to run out. So Cal asked me, “Is $300.00 a week okay?” and I said, “300 bucks a week?” I was lucky if I made $150.00 a week, and that was working forty long hours. I was with Cal’s band from that day for 7 ½ years. I toured the world with him, made 14 recordings, won a Grammy for “La Onda Va Bien,” and I was with him in Manila when he died of a heart attack 27 years ago.
TP: You were there when Cal passed away?
PS: I was in the room.
TP: His death must have come as a terrible shock.
PS: Cal Tjader was my musical father. Most people don’t know that Cal had a previous heart attack one year earlier. After that, he laid us for six months. When he was well enough, he returned to the music scene and went on tour. Cal wanted to go to the Philippines (Manila) more than any of us because he was a medic in the Navy during World War 2. He told me he wanted to visit a particular beach where a battle occurred. Interestingly enough, Cal Tjader’s wife and daughter rarely traveled with us, but thank God they joined us on this trip. The minute we got to Manila, Cal told his wife he wanted to go to a beach where they had a statue of General Douglas Mac Arthur. He and his wife went there, and when he arrived, he cried like a baby. We hung out that night at the hotel, and his wife told me that Cal got little sleep and was very nervous. The next day, Cal was examined by a female doctor, President Ferdinand Marcos’s physician. She observed him for five minutes and had him admitted. As I pushed Cal through the lobby to the hospital, he was cracking jokes. He said, “I would rather be playing “Guachi Guara” than be in this wheelchair.” He hated “Guachi Guara” because he was tired of playing it. When we arrived at the hospital, he had yet another heart attack. The doctors revived him briefly, but eventually, he went into a coma. The next day, which was Cinco de Mayo, he had a heart attack and died. He was 56 years old.
TP: you went into a deep depression after Cal died.
PS: Yeah, man, that was a long, sad trip. I was crying all the way home from Manila. I went into a deep depression for about two years. What pulled me out of it was that Cal got me a contract with Concord Picante, a Concord Jazz branch. The first album we recorded on the Concord label was “La Onda Va Bien,” which won a Grammy in 1980. About eight months after Cal died, I recorded “Sonando.” Since then, I have made 24 recordings with Concord Picante.
TP: “That’s quite an achievement! It’s not often that an artist stays with a record label for such a long time. Unfortunately, many of the artists who recorded for Concord Picante, such as Cal, Mongo, and Tito Puente, are no longer with us. This means that the responsibility of keeping Latin Jazz alive now falls squarely on your shoulders.”
PS: Many people call me the “Keeper of the Flame.” I honestly never dreamed that I would be that.
TP: I can only think of a handful of musicians that do what you do at such a consistently high level.
PS: And I will keep doin’ it until I can’t do it anymore! I grew up listening to jazz, Latin jazz, and authentic salsa, rumba, and black music. It’s what I love.
TP: Speaking of black music, I was in New Mexico a few years ago, where I saw an exhibit titled “The African Presence in Mexico – From Yanga to the Present.” The exhibition focused on the little-known history of enslaved Africans brought to Mexico in the 1500s and their contributions to Mexican culture. I wonder if you have seen the exhibit? And if so, would you consider incorporating Afro-Mexican rhythms into your music?
PS: I haven’t seen the exhibit, but black (African) music is a big part of the music in Venezuela, Brazil, and many other Latin American countries. That’s a subject I will look into.
TP: Conversely, the soul comes in all shapes and sizes.
PS: Look at Cal; he was a Swedish blue-eyed baby. Not only was he a vibe player, but before that, he was a jazz drummer, and before that, he was a tap dancer. Cal’s family was a vaudeville family; he and his brother and sisters were tap dancers. One day, I was playing a gig, and Buddy Ebsen (AKA Jed Clampett from the TV show The Beverly Hill Billies) walked into the club and waved to Cal, and I thought to myself, “What the hell is this?” Long story short, he and Cal were friends. Buddy walked over to Cal and said, “Hey man, let’s do our old routine,” they started tap dancing in the back room. They tapped and danced for two minutes, laughed, and had a few drinks. Cal was rusty by then, but he knew how to tap dance.
TP: It’s been said Cal never played a wrong note.
PS: Cal had a lot of soul.
TP: Before we close, I wanted to ask you about Willie Bobo. You knew one another. However, I was wondering if you ever made any recordings together?
PS: Actually Willie appears on the Cal Tjader album, “Huracan.” After that, I performed with Willie’s group three times, Willie and I also recorded “Tribute to Cal Tjader” together.
TP: Willie was another great musician who left us all too soon.
PS: I was playing at a little club called “The Baked Potato” with (pianist) “Claire Fischer and Salsa Picante.” Willie came by one night to see us play, and he had a big patch behind his ear. When I asked him about it, he told me he had just come from the doctor and had a malignant cyst removed. You know what? He died six months later. The last time I saw Willie was when me and a bunch of other musicians got together to raise money for his medical expenses. He was in a wheelchair and wanted no one to see him in that condition, so he came to the back door of the venue and asked me to thank everyone for what they were doing. Then he got into a van and drove off. That was the last time I saw him.
TP: “Psychedelic Blues” was inspired by Willie, correct?
PS: Correct. For the recording, we brought in Andrew Synowiec, a young, local guitar player here in Los Angeles. I gave him a bunch of my CD’s so he could get what the Willie Bobo sound and the music was all about. He listened to them, and one month later we went into the studio and recorded. All for Willie Bobo man.
TP: On “Psychedelic Blues” you return to your Latin Jazz roots and pay tribute to Willie Bobo, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, Rene Touzet, Freddie Hubbard, John Hicks, and others. How did you choose the material for this recording?
PS: The Vice President of Concord Records and my musical director David Torres and Francisco Torres and I got together. One reason I am still with Concord is that they ask me, “Poncho, what would you like to do next?”
TP: I don’t know too many record companies that do that!
PS: (Laughs) The Vice President of Concord Picante came to my house and suggested that I go back to my roots, my Latin Jazz stuff. He asked if we would record “Cantaloupe Island” and suggested including more songs like that. I went through my collection of CDs, records, and films and selected some of my favorite tunes – “Silver’s Serenade,” “Slowly But Surely,” “Crisis,” and others. Regarding the tune “Con Sabor Latino,” nobody has recorded it except Rene Touzet and me. I like to draw from childhood and listen to the music I grew up with. Stuff that Machito, Mongo, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Cuba, and Cal Tjader did. We also write our material but always pay tribute to the masters.
TP: The album has been well received. It was on “Jazz Week’s” top ten list for weeks. What’s next for Poncho Sanchez?
PS: Two things I am thinking about for my next project. We have been doing symphonies. Right before Tito Puente passed, he called me and was all excited about our bands working together (on the same stage) with a symphony orchestra.
TP: That would be amazing!
PS: He suggested that I get symphony charts of my music. It was a little expensive, but now I have 8 or 9 charts. Thanks to Tito, my band has been performing with symphony orchestras for about five years.
TP: What kind of material do you perform?
PS: “Insight,” “Oyelo,” “Shiny Stockings,” “Afro Cuban Fantasy,” “Watermelon Man,” “Batiri Cha Cha” and “Cosas del Alma.” Someday I hope to film and record our band in performance with a symphony orchestra.
TP: Tito’s last concert (in Puerto Rico) was with a symphony orchestra.
PS: I haven’t seen that. Another thing I hope to do … I recently performed with bassist Christian Mc Bride in a jazz setting, which was a great experience. Afterward, I told my manager I wanted to make a recording with a jazz trio.
TP: I look forward to seeing those projects come to fruition. Poncho, thanks for speaking with me, and more importantly, thank you for being part of the soundtrack of my life. As I mentioned, I have been listening to and enjoying your music for a LONG time!
PS: It was a pleasure speaking with you, Tomas. It’s good to talk with someone who knows what’s up!
TP: Gracias!

2020 UPDATE

Poncho Sanchez, a GRAMMY Award-winning conguero, is releasing his first new album in seven years. The album, titled “Trane’s Delight,” is a tribute to the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. The album is set to be released on September 20, 2019, via Concord Picante. In this album, Poncho Sanchez celebrates the life and music of John Coltrane, one of his earliest and most significant influences. It is a love letter from one musical pioneer to another, showcasing the Latin Jazz legend’s admiration for the iconic saxophonist.
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

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