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A Fireside Chat With Poncho Sanchez

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Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I did buying for Tower Records. In my limited capacity as a record store serf, I was empowered by musicians who would compliment the selection. Poncho Sanchez came in a handful of times, but unlike the lion’s share of artists, never eyeballed his CDs. Moreover, the conguero actually educated me on the gravity of Lee Morgan’s Caramba. That personifies Sanchez, neighborhood, unconditionally. His unmitigated benevolence has been rewarded and today, Sanchez (unedited and in his own words) is the reigning ambassador of Latin jazz. And to think I played no role at all, well, that is humbling indeed.

FRED JUNG: How is the view from the top?

PS: I think you hit the nail right on the head, Fred. People are learning now about this music and finally giving this music it’s due. This music is great, great music, Latin jazz and salsa music. I knew about this music when I was a little boy, back when it was not that popular, because I am the youngest of eleven kids and my older brothers and sisters got into this music when the first wave of the mamba and the cha-cha-cha came to Los Angeles from New York City back in the Fifties. I was born in ’51, so growing up, four, five, six years old, I already knew about this music. I used the spread the word way back when. Now, I am just glad to see that it is getting the complete recognition that it deserves.

FJ: And you headlined this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival. No longer are you a Los Angeles secret, welcome mainstream super-stardom.

PS: Yeah, Fred. First of all, it is a wonderful feeling. I also feel that I have done my homework and worked very hard for this. We both know that this didn’t happen overnight. I’ve had the band now for twenty-five years. Of course, I was with Cal Tjader seven and a half years before that. So I’ve been playing professionally now for thirty-two years. So after thirty-two years and twenty-two CDs later, a Grammy, the Latin Billboard Award for the number one selling Latin jazz CD in the country for two years in a row, I guess it is all finally all paying off and coming together.

FJ: Anything substantial withstands the weight of time. When considering your debut, Poncho, was recorded a quarter of a century ago, before some of your fans were born. I recall, back in the day, the Poncho Sanchez band playing at swap meets, small city celebrations, clubs so small they don’t exist today, just guerilla marketing, play anytime, anywhere to get the word out. So it seems reasonable that you have endured and the respect is well deserved.

PS: I’m glad you said that. You are absolutely correct. And at first, Fred, I was just so excited. I loved the music so much and I respected the pioneers so much, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Eddie Palmieri, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie. They were all my heroes. Thank God, I got to meet most of them. The only one I didn’t get to meet was Tito Rodriguez. He died before I got to meet him. I played with Dizzy. I played with Cal, Mongo. I named my oldest son after Mongo. My oldest son, who is named Mongo, is now thirty years old. I would take him to see Mongo when he was a little baby. Mongo, before he was even born, my wife and I were at the old Pasta House on Olympic Boulevard in East L.A. and my wife was pregnant with him and I told Mongo, “Could you lay your hands on her stomach because if it’s a boy, we’re going to call him Mongo?” He laid his hands on my wife’s stomach and sure enough, it was a boy. That is how much I respect the pioneers. My youngest son, who is twenty years old, my boys are ten years apart, his name is Tito, and I named him after Tito Puente. This is how much of a fan I am of this music.

FJ: Nearly a decade has passed since our initial conversation concerning Soul Sauce, an album you dedicated to the memory of Cal Tjader. You spoke of then of his profound influence on your musical and personal life. Since, you have come full circle, like Tajder to you, being a mentor for the next generation. But with that comes grave responsibility.

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