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Poncho Sanchez: Mambo King

Steve Bryant By

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For over 30 years, conguero/bandleader Poncho Sanchez has been the premier proponent of West Coast Latin Jazz. Growing up in Norwalk, California, Sanchez was exposed to and influenced by two very different styles of music: Afro-Cuban music and bebop, as well as R&B. Originally a guitarist, Sanchez taught himself the flute, drums, and timbales before finally deciding to pursue conga playing in high school. In 1975, Sanchez's idol, vibraphonist "Bruce McKenzie invited him to perform with his band. Sanchez played with Tjader for several years until Tjader's death in 1982.

Thanks to Tjader, Sanchez signed with Concord Picante Records, where he went on to produce over 30 albums for the label, including the Grammy Award-winning Latin Soul (1999). In 2011, Sanchez collaborated with noted trumpeter Terence Blanchard on Chano Y Dizzy (2011), a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. Sanchez is respected as one of the top American percussionists, and performs all over the world to overflow crowds.

All About Jazz: You have a very interesting history, considering you didn't receive musical training in the traditional way. What influenced you to play congas?

Poncho Sanchez: Well, I can tell you I never took any formal lessons. When I moved to Los Angeles, I started to listen to mambo records by Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Machito, Ray Barretto, and of course, Cal Tjader. I especially listened to the drummers who played with Cal [Tjader] such as Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabella. I studied them on a regular basis and I learned the conga sounds as well as the rhythms. As time went on, I learned about the different types of Afro-Cuban rhythms and I applied them to my playing.

AAJ: In addition to Afro-Cuban and Latin music, what else were you listening to at the time?

PS: Being that I lived in LA, I listened to a lot of jazz and R&B. My favorite artists included James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. I also listed to Johnny Otis' radio show all the time. In the jazz idiom, my favorite cats were Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, and John Coltrane. I also dug the funk-jazz that Eddie Harris and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley were doing at that time.

AAJ: You have been playing for over 40 years, and it seems your only gigs were Cal [Tjader] and yourself as bandleader. How was it playing with Tjader?

PS: What can I say? Cal was my friend mentor and teacher, as well as being a boss. Everything about performing in front of an audience, recording, as well as leading a band, touring and keeping the business straight, I learned it all from Cal. His Latin jazz recordings had a strong influence on me as well. Of course, my favorites were Soul Sauce, and El Sonido Nuevo, with Eddie Palmieri. The one thing, though I'll always be grateful to Cal for is hooking me up with Carl Jefferson of Concord Records—which. as you know, has been my label for over 30 years.

AAJ: Well inquiring minds want to know... How did you come to play with Tjader?

PS: I was playing around LA with some local groups, and Cal came to check me out. Next thing I know, he asked me to come play with him at the Coconut Grove on New Year's Eve of 1975. I was so nervous that I brought my instruments though the front door instead of the back. It wasn't Cal who greeted me though. His pianist, Lonnie Hewitt, was the first cat I met.

AAJ: Didn't Hewitt play that funky piano on Soul Sauce, especially "Guachi Guaro"?

PS: He sure did! Lonnie played with Cal up until the late '70s. I remember him as being a nice beautiful cat and we remained tight up until his passing around 1979. A lot of people don't know this, but Lonnie composed some songs that were hits on the West Coast. I particularly remember "Is It Me (Or Is It My Bright Lights?)" I miss Lonnie. as well as Cal.

AAJ: Of all the recordings you did with Tjader. Do you have a favorite?

PS: Of course, that would be hard to choose, but I would say The Grace Cathedral Concert and < em>La Onda Va Bien. Roger Glenn, who is the son of Tyree Glenn, did some nice flute work on that one.

AAJ: Yeah, Roger lives in the Bay Area and doesn't receive the recognition he deserves. So, what did it feel like, jumping out there on your own?

PS: I do have to admit it was scary, especially since Cal had just passed. However, it was because of his leadership and mentoring that I had the confidence to jump on out there, and it didn't hurt that I had a label like Concord to give me a space to create and try out my music.

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Catching Up With
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