|© Devin DeHaven|
The one and only Poncho Sanchez, soul vato supreme, swings into town – to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall – on Saturday, May 9, after a ten-year absence. And boy, is he bienvenido. I know I’m slinging superlatives here, but Sanchez plays the happiest music on the planet. If you have to put a label on it call it Latin jazz, of the most bailable sort. But really, it’s much bigger than that. The way this generous Tejano from East LA (yes) puts his sounds together tells a tale of the American melting pot.
Sanchez is a storyteller with words, too. He’s so loquacious his interviews tell you everything you need to know. So, without further ado, here’s what he told me on the phone last week, and it’s so good I’ll just write it out verbatim:
CulturalOyster: Your musical journey’s been pretty unusual – most Tejanos who grow up in East LA don’t end up playing Latin jazz. What made you different?
Sanchez: You know, I’m the youngest of 11 kids. I have six sisters and four brothers. We were all born in Laredo. I was three when we moved to Southern California in 1954. I did hear a lot of Tejano and mariachi music, my mother and father grew up in Mexico, but my older siblings caught the mambo and cha cha cha wave when we got to LA, so I grew up listening to Cal Tjader and Machito. My sisters really got into it, every day they’d push the living room furniture aside and dance. It was part of my life. One of my brothers was into jazz, Duke Ellington and Tito Puente, man, and at that time doo wop was really popular in our barrio and I still love all the old stuff, doo wop and ‘60s Motown and Stax Records, James Brown, Wilson Pickett – that’s my life, that’s what I got on my iPod, that’s my thing.
I was trying to play that stuff, but I had to grab it, study it and work on it first. I played guitar in a neighborhood rock band and then I progressed to drums, and I’d sing no matter what. And then in high school I got hold of some congas and I’d listen to Tito and Tjader, I was too young to go to clubs and we didn’t have any money for lessons, with 11 kids you got a lotta love but no money, you know what I mean? I was self-taught. Me and a buddy went to a drum circle we heard about at the park – Griffith Park, in LA – guys got together there every Sunday so we went and wow, there was about 35 guys under a big tree all beatin’ on trash cans and whatever they could find. It was a buncha hippies, and we got in that circle and right away we thought man, this is just a buncha boring noise, people smokin’ marijuana and passin’ a bottle of wine. We wanted to play serious music. And someone came up to us and said hey man, you’re good, if you go up that hill there’s a place where the good guys, the Puerto Ricans and Cubans, play. So we went up there and I put my congas down and they were playing rumba, you know, guaguancó. I thought wow, they sound good. We listened for about 20 minutes and I tapped the guy playing the quinto – the solo drum, the talking drum – I tapped him and said ‘hey man, can I play?’ He goes ‘Are you Cuban?’ I said no. He says ‘are you Puerto Rican?’ I said no. He says, ‘what are you?’
I said I’m Chicano. He said oh, man, Chicanos can’t play congas. I thought, how do you know if you haven’t heard me play? But then he got up to go shake somebody’s hand or somethin’ and I jumped on his drum and started playing and the guy stopped in his tracks and looked back at me like ‘Damn!’ And after about 10 minutes he said hey, man, you sound good, your father must be Puerto Rican or Cuban. I said no, my father’s Mexican and he said ‘Mexicans can’t play congas.’ It was like that till I established myself. It’s a funny story, but it’s the truth.
CulturalOyster: You became a bandleader when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and you not only survived, you’ve put out an album roughly every year and a half. That makes you one of the most prolific players ever – how do you do it?
Sanchez: Out of sheer will and willpower. I really stuck to it and I worked very hard for it. When I was with Tjader [Sanchez joined Tjader’s band in 1975, at the age of 24], that was my dream come true. I was like come on, this is amazing! My brothers and sisters had all his records and when I told them I was in his band they didn’t believe me. They said you’re good, but Cal Tjader is great! But once they got it in their heads that I was really in the band I was the talk of the family, and they’d all brag about it.
Cal got me the contract with Concord in 1982, about six months before he passed. The first record was Sonando and with the second, Bien Sabroso, I got a Grammy nomination under my own name. I’d already gotten a Grammy with Cal [for La Onda Va Bien, Concord Picante, 1980] and one with Clare Fischer [for Clare Fischer & Salsa Picante Present 2+2, Pausa, 1980]. I’ve been nominated eight times under my own name now and won twice [Best Latin Jazz Album for Latin Soul, JVC Victor, 1999, and again with Terrence Blanchard for their collaborative album Chano y Dizzy, 2011, Concord]. And I got a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Latin Grammys two years ago. I think we have 27 or 28 CDs out, we done good, but it wasn’t easy, it’s a lotta hard work. You got to be really dedicated. I also raised two boys and me and my wife Stella have been married 40 years this year. It was tough, I was traveling with the band, but thank God we did it.
I was at Concord for 30 years. Finally my contract is up and they’re not renewing it. I found that out nine months ago. Concord Records has changed so much, I only know a couple of people who still work there. The new owners have a totally different marketing strategy – it’s not the Concord Records I signed with. They own a lot of other labels, they’re getting their money a different way than recording a nine-piece Latin jazz band every year, so I’ve moved on. I’m signing with Mack Avenue [an independent label based in Michigan with a fast-growing roster of jazz musicians] in the next few weeks, to start a series of CDs with them. Right now we’re working on a Poncho Sanchez tribute to John Coltrane. That’s our next CD as soon as I sign – it’ll have some of our own original stuff but the main focus will be Coltrane.
CulturalOyster: Over the years you’ve played everything Latin and Latinized everything that’s not – do you have a deep down favorite genre?
Sanchez: We’ve already talked about this a little, but – early Latin jazz, Mongo Santamaría, Ray Barreto, all the Cal Tjader stuff, Willie Bobo, Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, that’s my favorite stuff right there. The other genre I love is the soul bag, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding I love very much – so there it is, plus the salsa and bebop, and Coltrane, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey – I draw on all that stuff.
Some musicians do things for money, or for the newest trend. I kinda want to, too, but I haven’t had to. I just do what’s really part of me and my upbringing. This ain’t fake, man, this is my life. I’m sharing my life with you.
CulturalOyster: You’ve met my friend Tony Castañeda, conguero and frontman for Madison’s favorite Latin jazz band. You’re one of his heroes, you and Cal Tjader, and he ends every gig, always, with [Tjader’s 1954 hit] “Wachi Wara.” So I’m wondering if you have a theme song like that.
Sanchez: Well, there’s a few we always have to play, they may not be my favorite tunes but they have to be tunes I like ‘cause I only play tunes I like. Everybody wants to hear “Besame Mama” and “Watermelon Man and “Yumbambe.” When people shout ‘em out that’s what I’m gonna play, I always take care of my fans. But I always play new music, new stuff we’re approaching, too. I’m gonna throw something new at ‘em every time. Lately we’ve been putting two or three of the new Coltrane numbers in our shows.
CulturalOyster: Who’s in your band on this tour?
Sanchez: It’s been pretty much the same for a long time – Francisco Torres on trombone is our director and main arranger; Rob Hardt on saxes and flutes; Ron Blake on trumpet and flugelhorn; Andy Langham on piano has been with us for about three rears; René Camacho on bass; Joey de León on timbales and Papo Rodríguez on bongos. And for 30 years, Larry Sanchez – he’s no relation to me but he’s our sound man on every gig, he goes with us every time and also helps in the studio with our recordings.
And one more thing. Tell the folks to come out to see us. They’re guaranteed to have a good time.
- interview and transcription: Susan Kepecs
More good music news: Madison's own Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Band -- Castaneda on congas, Dave Stoler on piano, Henry Boehm on bass, Anders Svanoe on sax, Louka Patenaude on guitar, and special guest Raj Mehta(formerly of the TCLJB, now teaching percussion on New York) on timbales. ¡A bailar!