A Fireside Chat With Poncho Sanchez

AAJ Staff By

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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.

PS: Oh, absolutely. Ten years ago, I really didn’t feel that way. I was just a struggling musician, trying to get another gig for the band. I would lean forward and have my head down, thinking that I was pulling this heavy load uphill. But I started feeling the change. You are absolutely correct, Fred. OK, I am the guy with the responsibility for Latin jazz. Young kids started coming up to me and asking me for advice. I thought, “Maybe I have come full circle.” I remember I used to do that to Cal, Mongo, and Tito. It comes with the territory and if you recognize that, it makes you better. That is what I’ve tried to do, recognize the authority and respect you have to have. We do clinics and master classes all over the world. I try to spread the word and let the young kids know that it is very important to take advantage of all the things that are available to them nowadays, the internet, DVDs, and videos. When I was growing up, you could not get percussion lessons at any music store. You could not go out and buy a book on how to play. But now, even I have my own book out about how to play, Poncho Sanchez’ Conga Cookbook. It teaches you how to play congas and also, how to cook. All these things are available to them. I tell them that it is very important to take advantage of that, set a goal in their lives, and stay focused in that goal until you reach it. That is what I did and if I can do it, I know they can.

FJ: It seems everyone wants to play with Poncho Sanchez, Latin Spirits featured Chick Corea.

PS: That came together because I’ve been with Concord for almost twenty years and I have seniority at the label. Glenn, John, and all the great people at Concord get along great with me. John Burk really helps me about a lot, John and Jim Cassell, my manager, and David Torres, my musical director. Between the four of us, we get together ahead of time and decide what we will do for the next CD. The meeting for Latin Spirits, John Burk has been to my house many times and I have all this old footage of the old soul bands of the Fifties, Louis Jordan, and James Brown. I have CDs and records of all this stuff. They see me get all excited about this stuff at home. So they said, “Why don’t you do an album that has some of that New Orleans stuff that you like?” So that is how I got the idea to use Dale Spalding. I saw him playing at a local club in Long Beach and he was playing that old Louis Jordan tune, “I Want You to Be My Baby.” As a matter of fact, that was supposed to be on that record, but it was so different than that record, we decided not to put it on there. We have a version of that in the can that we will use one day. He also did a tune called “Early in the Morning” and a tune called “Going Back to New Orleans,” which is an old Joe Liggins number that goes back to the Honeydrippers. I heard them do it as a funk and I thought that would work good as a mambo. And I told Dale that “Early in the Morning” would work as a cha-cha.

Now, Dale Spalding is a big fan of Latin jazz. He tells me, “Poncho, you changed my life. I don’t play those tunes, even with my band, the way I used to. I think of everything as a mambo or cha-cha now.” For me, it worked out great because we got a touch of New Orleans with Dale’s harmonica. When was the last time a Latin jazz band used a harmonica player on their record? Then John Burk told me that Chick would like to do some stuff. I had met Chick through his sound guy, Bernie Kirsh, who has been with Chick Corea for many years as his sound technician. One day, we played at the same gig and Bernie introduced me to Chick. I asked why don’t we do something for the next record and he said, "Let me write something for the next record.” He wrote the title track, “Latin Spirits.” Chick is a harmonic genius. It was an honor and a treat to have Chick on the record.

FJ: And Ray Charles guests on your latest, Out of Sight.

PS: Once again, we are talking about a living legend here. Brother Ray Charles, as a little kid growing up in Los Angeles, I was exposed to all this different kind of music, gospel music, which I love very much and will touch upon on the next record, and all the great Ray Charles hits on the radio at that time. I remember listening to the tune “Mary Ann” on the radio as a little boy. I always felt it in a cha-cha groove. Dale Spalding does a version of “Mary Ann” and we started doing that as a funky cha-cha. As a matter of fact, Dale plays harmonica on that track. I asked Dale if it would be OK to have Ray Charles come in and do the vocals. Ray agreed to do it. At the time, Billy Preston was at Ray’s office. Billy asked me, “If there is anything I can do for you on the record, let me know.” I asked him if he knew “One Mint Julep” and Billy came in and he knew that tune inside out.

FJ: Start making room on the mantel for a few more awards.

PS: (Laughing) I think if they ignore this one, I wouldn’t understand that. I really feel very, very strongly about this record. I have a really good feeling about it. It is a throwback to when I used to be the frontman for a rhythm and blues/soul band. Francisco Aguabella plays batas on the last track as a tribute to the late, great Mongo Santamaria. I think this one is the best one that I have ever made and I’ve made some pretty good records.

FJ: I do have one bone to pick, however. For anyone jumping on the Poncho bandwagon, it will cost a small fortune to obtain your now, sizeable discography.

PS: (Laughing) Oh, yeah.

FJ: The people need a Poncho box set.

PS: That is what a lot of people have been telling me.

FJ: The neighborhood kid has grown up to become the worldwide ambassador of Latin jazz.

PS: Everything is finally coming together, Fred. What is happening to the music now, I just want it to continue growing and getting the recognition that it deserves. To me, Latin jazz is our music. It is American music. It was born right here when the great Chano Pozo met the great Dizzy Gillespie. This is ours. This is a piece of America and I am proud of that. For me, I am slowing down a little bit so I can enjoy my home and my family more. I used to be on the road all the time and playing all the time and I think it is time to start enjoying family life. But I don’t think I will ever stop performing and playing. I am trying to pay back where I came from. I did a master class at a little middle school in Norwalk. We played for the kids. The music is spreading and I am very proud of that.

Visit Poncho Sanchez on the web at www.ponchosanchez.com .

Photo Credit
Mark Sheldon

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