Sánchez, Poncho: 1951—

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Poncho Sánchez: 1951: Jazz percussionist, vocalist

A classic conguero, Poncho Sánchez, a giant on the Latin jazz scene, has developed into salsa's elder statesman. Sánchez, a Chicano from Texas, taught himself guitar and congas, and gained experience singing with a teen band, but found himself shut out of opportunities to play with Cubans and Puerto Ricans, who considered themselves the sole heirs of salsa. At age 23 he found a mentor, vibraphonist Cal Tjader, and was able to make his own way to the top, gig by gig. His open, inclusive style has survived over three decades of constant travel, annual recordings, percussion workshops, and absorption in new trends, new performers, and the tastes of his fans. Internationally acclaimed by percussionists and jazz aficionados, Sánchez became a leading player and producer of a consistent string of hit albums layering Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban, salsa, bop, funk, and rhythm and blues.

A Home Filled with Music

Though Sánchez was born on October 30, 1951, in Laredo, Texas, he grew up in Norwalk, California. Sánchez was the youngest of 11 children. He attended Grayland Avenue Elementary School. His mother, who was from the northern Mexico region of Vallecillo, Nuevo Leon, and his father, who was from Matalsas, Jalisco, also in Mexico, sang regularly in their church choir. At home there was the radiozesty, engaging mariachi, mambo, and cumbia music played by disc jockey Chico Cesno on Los Angeles's only Latin radio stationto accompany the daily rhythms of adults and children.

Like adding ingredients to a pungent stew, Sánchez acquired dollops of musical heritage, based on the Mexican traditions of his parents. As a child, he observed his sisters dancing and lip-syncing to the Afro-Cuban beat of Machito, Tito Puente, and Cal Tjader. In this same period, a counter rhythm from the Sánchez brothers added doo-wop, rock, and rhythm and blues. On his own, Sanchez tuned into the hard bop of the Jazz Crusaders and to the era's greatsCharlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, and Thelonious Monkwho formed the foundation for his immersion in jazz fundamentals.

By age 12 Sánchez was on his way toward a career in music. He raised 50 cents for a guitar and practiced daily to impress the Halos, a teen R&B band that rehearsed across the street. His guitar playing remained mediocre, but in 1966 the band invited him to do their lead vocals. That same year he began playing timbales, which his father made for him, and later added the chekere. Until he reached age 17, he was the Halos' lead vocalist.

At a Glance . . .

Born Poncho Sánchez on October 30, 1951, in Laredo, Texas; married, wife's name Stella.

Career: Lead vocalist, the Halos, 1966-71; lead vocal-ist, Young Set, 1969; conguera, Cal Tjader's band, 1975-82; conguera and lead vocalist, Poncho Sanchez Latin Octet, 1980; recording contract, Discovery, 1980-82; recording contract, Concord Picante, 1982; filmed performance at the Biltmore Bowl, Los Angeles, CA, Cinemax, 1989.

Awards: Grammy Award, 1999, best Latin recording, for Latin Soul.

Address: Office Berkeley Agency, 2608 Ninth Street, #301, Berkeley, CA 94710.

Poncho and the Conga

Fortunately Sánchez remained open to a new thrillhis maiden tap on conga drums. His father bought the first drum; a second one was his own purchase, with money saved from singing with the Halos. Enthralled, he thumped congas along with his siblings' records. At Los Angeles's Griffith Park, he attempted to join the Sunday morning drummers, but was met with rebuffs from Cubans and Puerto Ricans until he proved himself worthy of the staunch Latino traditionalists. One of his earliest career contacts was with the Five Ortiz Brothers, who later developed their own 14-man salsa band, Son Mayor, which showcased bongos and the tres, a six-string acoustic guitar.

Like most young dreamers, Sánchez filled the garage with practice sets to recordings of the musica Latina of his day. In 1969 he sang with the Young Set at his brother's wedding, one of many chances to play before an audience. In December of 1975, at Concerts by the Sea, a jazz club in Redondo Beach, a friend got him an introduction to his hero, Cal Tjader. When Tjader's conga master left, Sanchez competed with other percussionists for the position. After the first audition, Tjader invited him to sit in at a Coconut Grove engagement for New Year's Eve, opposite scat singer Carmen McRae. That night expanded into a seven-year commitment to Tjader's band, which ended on May 5, 1982, when Tjader died in the Philippines at age 57.

Sánchez on His Own

Primed and ready, Sánchez was eager to slip into contention for the role of the music world's chief Latin jazz artist. Since 1980 he had been grooming his band, the Latin Octet, which was headquartered in Los Angeles and played supper clubs and public concerts. He recorded two discs on the Discovery label and aired his own sound when Tjader's group vacationed. Not long before Tjader died, he suggested to Carl Jefferson, founder of Concord Picante recordings, that he ink a contract with Sánchez. The resulting deal brought Sánchez an annual recording. In 1999 the album Latin Soul opened with "El Conguero," revisited bop with "Ican," and honored Mongo Santamaria with "Water-melon Man." Winning a Grammy nomination, the CD snagged the award for best Latin recording.

Sánchez's infectious good spirits and dedication to music have brought him additional opportunities and friendships. In 1989 Cinemax filmed his performance with Cuban drummer Armando Peraza and Mexican guitarist Carlos Santana at the Biltmore Bowl in Los Angeles. That same year, Sánchez employed athlete Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to compose liner notes for his Chile Con Soul album. Three years later, Sánchez appeared with comedian Bill Cosby at the Playboy Jazz Festival. On February 15, 1994, the mayor of Laredo appointed Sánchez the honorary President of the Republic of the Rio Grande. In 1996 he and his wife, Stella, appeared alongside then-Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper at a reception honoring the first decade of the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz.

Throughout his rise to stardom, Sánchez never forgot the roots of his success, which Jesse "Chuy" Valera, a reviewer for JazzTimes, summarized in a cover headline, "All Hail the New King of Latin Jazz!" In 1995 Sánchez publicly saluted Tjader, his late friend, former employer, and guiding star. The tribute recording, Soul Sauce, was a well-crafted thank-you. It included reprises of Tjader favorites"Poinciana Cha Cha," "I Showed Them," and the title song blended with a Sánchez farewell to Tjader, "Song For Cal," with vibist Ruben Estrada subbing for the old master. The jazz world took note of Sánchez's humility and gratitude.

Still Jammin'

In 1998 Sánchez's eight-man ensemble recorded Latin Bit, which critics admired for its soulful melody, pulsing beat, and creative title song, written by jazz keyboard artist Joe Sample. Combining the talents of guest saxophonist Wilton Felder and trombonist Wayne Henderson, the collection kept up an appealing mix, from cha-cha, mambo, and rhumba to slower, bluer danceables. To Carla Hay of Billboard, Sánchez described the uniqueness of his south-of-the-border sound: In an era of hard rock, he used no synthesizers, no rock guitars, no drums. His music remains pure Latin.

In 2000, for his twentieth recording, Sánchez released a groundbreaking 14-track CD, Soul of the Conga, which earned a rave review from reviewer Michael Stone of Rhythm magazine. One explanation of the CD's popularity was Sánchez's collaboration with Joey DeFrancesco, master of the Hammond B-3 organ. The Sánchez-DeFrancesco merger warmed up during a three-week preliminary gig at Yoshi's, a jazz house and Japanese restaurant at Jack London Square in Oakland, California. To Jason Koransky, an interviewer for Down Beat, Sánchez remarked, "We just ran the tunes down two or three times and recorded. It was loose and fresh. We had a great time with Joey in the studio." Although Sánchez had never combined his sound with an organ before, the solid performance moved National Public Radio reviewer Alfredo Alvarado to applaud the results and comment that Sánchez "has not lost his touch for the music he loves."

In 2001, bolstered by his old friends the Five Ortiz Brothers (verify group with all music.com), Sánchez produced an eclectic recording which pulled together sounds both old and new. Latin Spirits paired "Sambia," a festive Machito piece from the early 1950s, with Chick Corea's latest Afro-Iberian keyboarding on the folkloric solo "Ju Ju." Backing up the core of salsa vocals Sánchez-style were pianist David Torres and trombonist Francisco Torres, with Sal Cracchiolo on trumpet, Ramon Banda on timbales, Scott Martin on sax, and Fernando Torres on trombone. The recording added Torres and Dale Spalding on vocals, with Jose "Papo" Rodriguez shadowing Sánchez's melody line and percussion. Sánchez revved up the suite with his rendition of "Quieres Volver" and segued into the romantic vocals of "Cosas Del Alma."

Sánchez on the Road

Still playing with three original members of his bandRamone and Tony Banda and Sal CracchioloSánchez has managed a busy career that has kept him on the road, from the Aladdin Resort in Las Vegas to the new Blue Note Club, from the Newport Jazz Festival and a musicians' clinic at the University of Tennessee to the Hollywood Bowl and the Detroit Opera House. In an essay posted on his website, which was mounted by his son, computer whiz Xavier Sánchez, Poncho remarked, "I'm proud to say that we have stuck to the basic fundamentals and the roots which are very important to us." To keep his act fresh and non-repetitive, he has maintained a 200-song travel book, inviting his players to choose each night's feature ballad and a crowd-pleasing mix of dance rhythms. He has maximized family time by scheduling long weekends of work, returning to Norwalk on Mondays to his wife.

Sánchez shows no signs of slowing down. When trombonist Francisco Torres decided he wanted to extend his three years with Sánchez to twenty, Sánchez jovially wondered out loud whether he would be able to thunder out his signature hand rhythms for another two decades. To questions about his trademark flat-top cap, he refuted suggestions that it covers a bald spot. For his personal appearances, the hat, beard, and burly torso are all parts of the conguero that fans expect to see.

Still in demand around the globe for jazz jams and student tutorials, Sánchez has continued to promote Latin jazz, and to advise young aspiring percussionists to stay focused on music and practice with electronic instructional aids. He added to their choices in March of 2002 with Poncho Sánchez's Conga Cookbook, a print guide to standard riffs and Afro-Cuban rhythms. He keeps a backlog of innovative ideas for developing American-style Latin jazz as an egalitarian music for everybody. The website "Salsa Creations" quoted his belief: "If you feel Latin jazz in your heart and love it as much as I do, it doesn't matter where you're from."

Selected discography

Sonando, 1982.

Bien Sabroso, 1983.

El Conquero, 1985.

Papa Gato, 1986.

Fuerte, 1988.

Chile con Soul, 1989.

Cambios, 1990.

Familia, 1990. A Night at Kimball's East, 1991.

El Mejor, 1992.

A Night with Poncho Sánchez Live, 1993.

Para Todos, 1994.

Soul Sauce, 1995.

Baila Mi Gente: Salsa!, 1996.

Conga Blue, 1996.

Freedom Sound, 1997.

Afro-Cuban Fantasy, 1998.

Latin Bit, 1998.

Latin Soul, 1999.

Soul of the Conga, 2000.

Baila Baila, 2001.

Keeper of the Flame, 2001.

Latin Spirits, 2001.



Berendt, Joachim-Ernst, The Jazz Book: From Rag-time to Fusion and Beyond, 6th ed., Lawrence & Hill, 1992.


Billboard, October 28, 2000.

Culver City Life, June 1999.

Down Beat,, March 1996; March 1998; April 2001; April 2002.

Fortune, November 12, 2001.

Yale Bulletin and Calendar, July 27, 2001.




Latin Jazz Club, http://www.latinjazzclub.com/Latin JazzKing.html

Latin Jazz Network, http://www.latinjazznet.com/reviews/events/poncho_sanchez.htm

Salsa Creations, http://www.members.aol.com/cintio1/page12.html

NPR Jazz Reviews, http://www.nprjazz.org/reviews/psanchez.cd.html

Poncho Sánchez Official website, http://www.ponchosanchez.com


Additional information for this profile were obtained through the Berkeley Agency.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass

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