An Interview with Poncho Sanchez

Poncho SanchezA Conversation with
Poncho Sanchez
Mark Ruffin

Fate has been very kind to percussionist Pancho Sanchez, especially in January. It was New Year’s Eve, 1974 when he made his big-time professional musician with legendary vibraphonist Cal Tjader. It was in January 1979 when Sanchez made his first recording under his own name. And this January, Poncho Sanchez is the featured interview in this month’s JazzUSA. Sanchez’ new album, his 18th, is titled “Afro-Cuban Fantasy” and features the exquisite vocal work of Diane Reeves. According to our Mark Ruffin, the gregarious musician is a loquacious as he is talented. It’s no surprise to us as to how funny he can be, after all the liner notes on his last album “Freedom Sound” was done by Bill Cosby.

JazzUSA: Tell us about the incident in the bar where you were jamming that kind of started your career.

PS: There was this guy there who saw me playing and he said he knew Cal Tjader and he was going to tell Cal about me. I looked at him and said ‘yeah, right.’ He said ‘you want a drink?’ Yeah sure, I said. I took a drink and said, ‘yeah, I’m going to tell Cal about you.’ ‘Sure you are, buddy, thanks for the drink.’ I remember I came home and I told my wife I talked to some guy who said he’s a friend of Cal Tjader and he’s going to tell him about me. She goes ‘yeah, sure.’ About a week went by and Cal Tjader was in town at Concert By The Sea in Rodondo Beach and I always went to see Cal. I went downstairs and as I’m going downstairs to get our tickets and I’m walking in the club, sure enough this guy was standing right there talking to Cal Tjader. His name was Ernie, and I went ‘whoa.’ I told my wife, ‘remember that guy I told you was jiving, there he is talking to Cal.’ It’s funny, he was talking to Cal Tjader at the time about me. I walked in, he goes, ‘hey Cal, there he is. That’s the guy.’ I was like, is this really happening? He then introduced me to Cal and Cal goes, ‘you know, Ernie is not the only guy who has mentioned your name to me when I come to L.A. He goes on to say people have told him about my conga playing and we talked and he suddenly goes, hey man you want to sit in. I was floored man, I couldn’t believe it. He said ‘I’ll call you up in the middle of the set. We set down and we went to go watch the show and the next thing you know, I was the show. I got up and set in and I ended up playing like four tunes with him that set. And he took me in the back and asked me for my phone number and address and what not and said maybe I’ll give you a call. Even when I left that night I was pumped up. I thought that was the highlight of my life right there, I sat in with Cal Tjader. And I thought ‘he ain’t going to call me, he’s just being a nice guy, right?’ Sure enough, about two weeks went by and he gave me a call and asked if I could work with him a whole week while he’s down south(-ern California), and I need a conga drummer.’ I said, ‘are you kidding?’ I ended up playing with Cal Tjader New Year’s Eve at the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel opposite of Carmen McCrae, New Year’s Eve 1974-75.

JazzUSA: That’s a great story.

PS: And he had just hired me for that week only. And I played the first set the first night and he came back stage and said hey man, the gig’s yours. ‘The gig’s mine, what do you mean, the gig? You mean to play with you permanently.’ He said, ‘yeah, man. It’s your gig, if you want it.’ I couldn’t believe it man. And at the time I was laid off from a factory job. I working in a foundry. I was laid off already five months and getting towards the end of my unemployment. I told him he didn’t know what kind of blessing this is. Anyway I was with Cal Tjader for seven and a half years until his death in Manila. I was right next to him. We were all right next to him when he died of a heart attack in Manila. I toured the world with him and that’s how I got my start and my name known and from there on in, I had to do my own thing.

JazzUSA: And he used to feature you prominently too.

PS: Oh, yes, I was the featured soloist of the band.

JazzUSA: I never got the chance to see Cal Tjader, but I’ve heard many live recordings and it sounds like you guys were having so much fun.

PS: Cal man was a great guy to work for and a wonderful musician. Cal Tjader could play. He knew all the standards. He could play good man. Of course he was a great jazz vibraphonist and had a great feel for Latin music. He played great timbales too. He’d take a vibes solo and when it was the piano player’s turn he’d switch right over to timbales.

JazzUSA: You know a lot of folks are always surprised to find out that there wasn’t a Latin bone in his body.

PS: (laughs) no, he’s Swedish. Incredible.

JazzUSA: It was Dizzy who said the musics of the world would come together one day, and Cal Tjader was kind of an embodiment of that statement.

PS: Absolutely, and he could dance good too. Cal was a tap dancer as a young boy and his mother and father used to have a vaudeville show. His mother and father used to have a talent school where they would teach people to dance, act and what not, and get them ready for different shows. So he not only knew how to play music , but how to play piano well and dance. He used to dance the mambo and cha-cha-cha. He used to say ‘the authentic way, like the way they do it in New York City.’ (laughs) Cal was really a wonderful guy, a wonderful human being. I miss him still today, because he was just such a good guy to be around.

JazzUSA: Again, I can only get this from the live records, that it sounds live he was into putting on a show, not just throwing a band out there to jam.

PS: Oh yeah. He had a nice presentation and he always had killer soloist. Before I was in the band, he had Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Armando Peraza, all these great soloists, great musicians. Tons of great piano players, Lonnie Hewitt, Vince Guaraldi, Chick Corea.

JazzUSA: Were you intimidated by that legacy when you first joined the band?

PS: Well yeah. First of all, I grew up with those records and all that too, so I was like, I was blown away when he asked me to sit in. And of course, from the moment I got the gig, I was serious for about the first three years in the band. He even used to tell me that I was too serious. I wanted to give him everything I had. I wanted to try to be as good as Mongo Santamaria. I wanted to try to fill that chair as good as Mongo did. To me, I could never do it, because Mongo was one of my heroes in life. So, to me you’re never as good as your hero.

JazzUSA: Claire Fischer was a big part of your formative years too, right?

PS: Absolutely. Clare, is a harmonic genius. He’s of German descent, but he speaks very fluent and very correct Spanish. He even corrects my Spanish. He did help me a great deal with arrangements and writing tunes. We wrote many tunes together in the earlier years. Clare was an important part in the growth of my band and my thing.

JazzUSA: So you were this hot conga player in L.A. How did you learn music?

PS: I’m self-taught. I’m the youngest of eleven kids, with no other musicians in my family. All my brothers and sisters loved to mambo and cha-cha-cha. As a little boy growing up…. We’re from Texas; Loredo, Texas. My mother and father are from Mexico. So really, traditionally, this is not my music. My music is Tex-Mex polkas. I’ve done that too. But my brothers and sisters got into the mambo and cha-cha-cha when I was a little boy. So every morning, every day, every night, my brothers and sisters would listen to Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Cal Tjader, Mongo, all that stuff. So as a little boy, I heard it in my house every day. To me, it was no big thing. It was my music that I heard at home. Then I started going down the street and there was a couple of people playing guitar and they taught me how to play rhythm and blues tunes and pop tunes. At that time, it was more into a soul bag. So I learned all that and I also did that. I played in bands that played rhythm and blues, soul blues.

JazzUSA: And you played guitar?

PS: Yes, the guitar was my first instrument. This was like when I was in junior high. And then I went to go join a neighborhood band and when I went to go audition, they already had four guitar players in the band already. And they all played better than me. I thought, well I guess I’m not going to get into this band. And they said, you know, we don’t need a guitar player, but we need a singer. And they said, why don’t you try singing the song. And I said, well I don’t really sing. I kind of sing to myself when I play. They said, hey man, why don’t you try it. I got up and I sang a tune. It was a pop tune from the 60’s, I don’t even remember what it was. But I got up and sang the tune with the microphone and after the song was over, the guys in the man, said ‘wow man, you sing great.’ And I was the lead vocalist with that band for about six years. That night, they sent me home with a stack of 45’s records. In those days they were 45’s. From that moment on, I started checking out James Brown very heavily, all the Motown people- the way they approached the crowd, and the way they spoke, the way they danced on stage. So I got into that. So from the guitar, I was the lead vocalist, and then I learned how to play the trap set drums. And I played drums in a couple of groups including a Latin jazz group in high school. I started playing congas towards the end of high school.

JazzUSA: What was the inspiration for you learning trap drums?

PS: Because, that’s what was available at the time, growing up as a teen-ager, everybody’s got guitars and drums, and I was into James Brown a lot. I started playing drums because I knew a drummer down the street, so I went over there and started messing with the drums and started to learn to play pretty good. No matter what instrument I played in whatever band I got in, I also happened to be the lead vocalist as the same time. Then I just started watching Mongo play at the old Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, and see Cal Tjader’s band come through town. It was all self-taught-just watching and listening to those records everyday, and practice.

JazzUSA: Was a Latin jazz band, your first real experience playing congas?

PS: Yes. Actually, my father bought me a conga and I bought the other. It was two congas in a pawn shop. And I just kept putting on those Cal Tjader and Tito Puente records everyday in the garage and try to tap out the rhythms and figure out the way they were doing it. And then if I couldn’t figure it out, I’d go see Mongo play and watch his hands. And then go home and try it. I’d do it for hours and hours, days would go by.

JazzUSA: Poncho, you’ve always managed to put out good quality records, but there’s been something magical about the last four or five, like you’re trying to up the ante with each release.

PS: That’s what we try to do. It’s hard to keep on raising the bar. You can reach a certain plateau and that’s alright. As long as you hit a good plateau, a certain spot and stay with it. But it’s true, David Torres, my musical director and pianist, we work and plan these things out pretty good. We’ve been working on them and getting them together. And I’ve been also adding Scott Martin, he’s been over-dubbing baritone on a couple of these recordings, to have a little bit brighter, a little bit more fuller sound. Also everyone in the band gets better at just what it takes to make a record. With each record that goes by, everyone in the band learns more about which way we’re going and how we want to go about getting there. Experience, you know what I mean?

JazzUSA: And it’s been the same band for a number of years now, right?

PS: Right. I have three original members. I’ve had the band almost nineteen years now. And everybody else has been in the band for at least ten years. The new guy has been in the band for about a year. A new trombone player Francisco Torres.

JazzUSA: The name of your new album is Afro-Cuban Fantasy. Over the last few years there’s been this large influx of Afro-Cuban music, but it’s nothing new to you.

PS: I remember when Afro-Cuban music, or Latin music, or Salsa music was not cool. When I first started this band…. I mean, there was a Latin jazz craze in the 50’s and then in the late 60’s, the Santana thing started happening and people got into that rock/Latin sound and that stuck around for a long time and the Latin jazz thing was not in. To me, it’s always been great. I’ve always loved it. But I remember, guys who have Latin jazz bands today, back then were telling me, ‘hey Poncho man, that shit you’re doing with the be-bop lines and the Latin tunes with the Latin grooves and the jazz influence. That ain’t hip man.’ They told me fusion and funk was happening. Now some of those guys who were musicians here in L.A. telling me what I was doing wasn’t cool have Latin jazz bands today. That’s how much I love and respect this music. I remember when Latin jazz wasn’t hip. We’re not faking. We are Latin jazz.

JazzUSA: And because you stuck with it, you can tour the world now.

PS: Yes, we have capitalized on it and I know for a fact that the Pancho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band has a very important part in the growth of Latin jazz all over the world. Because I take this music all over the world. JazzUSA : The popularity that has been going on the last couple of years, have you noticed it in your audiences or in record sales?

PS: It’s definitely on the up and up, because we’ve been touring for years already and the crowds were always pretty good. There were some times when we were traveling and the crowds were kind of small and you do get kind of discouraged, and you feel bad with the money and it’s a tight scene. But now days the crowds are much bigger and we’re playing in places that we never dreamed of. One of the last tours we did, we played in Iowa, in Wisconsin, places that I never dreamed of wanting Latin jazz, and we were backed by popular demand in some of those places.

JazzUSA: Even in the big cities, instead of playing funky little clubs, you’re playing big concert halls.

PS: Yeah, but I still like to play those small clubs too. If I was on a tour in the mid-west and I got a club date, I don’t have a problem with that. You’ll do those because you’re on the road, you’re on the way, so I’ll stop over a night to play a small little club and get enough money to play for the room and pay the wages for the band and then you move on to the next night in a big university or concert hall and then you can charge money. It’s part of the road.

JazzUSA: How old are you?

PS: I’m 47.

JazzUSA: And Afro-Cuban Fantasy is your 18th album.

PS: It’s my 17th for Concord and I have another one on Discovery Records which I did before I signed with Concord, making a total of 18.

JazzUSA: There’s another late legend you obviously got to know and that was Discovery Records founder Albert Marx.

PS: Yes, he was the first one to give me a start on record. It was Clare Fischer who told me about him. I guess he was looking for a new young artist at the time and he asked Clare if he knew somebody. Clare told him he knew this young conga player in the Cal Tjader band. Clare told me he told him that I carried myself very well and was the featured soloist in the band. He asked where we were playing next. He lived in Hollywood and Clare told him our next gig was in Tucson, Arizona. Marx goes, ‘you know what, I’ve got family out there. I’m gonna fly out there and visit them, and take him in and see you guys play that night.’ Sure enough, I remember he told me, ‘Albert Marx is gonna be here tonight, he might want to sign you.’ Of course I did my very best that night, of course I always did with Cal’s band, and the next thing I knew, I signed a contract with Discovery Records. I was about, I don’t know 26 years old. I did my first record with them. It was called Poncho. Actually, it’s right here, I had it because I was thinking about making a t-shirt of the cover. Let me check the date. January 10, 1979. That’s when I did my first recording.

JazzUSA: So this month was your 20th anniversary in the record business?

PS: That’s right. I already look at the anniversary of the band. But that’s right I recorded that 20 years ago this month.

JazzUSA: You know, Poncho, a lot of folks are probably really surprised that you’re not from the islands?

PS: I get that all the time, yeah. Even drummers, the Cuban guys and the Puerto Rican guys. They come up to me and they start talking to me right away. You know, I speak Spanish, but they start talking to me in their style and saying ‘yeah, Poncho man, you’re from over there, Cuba, right? (laughs) And I tell them no, no, no, I’m Chicano. They look at me ‘Chicano, what are you talking about?’ ‘No man, my mother and father are from Mexico, I was born in Texas.’ And they go, ‘wow, how do you know how to play this music, man?’ (laughs) A lot of hard work man. I studied it real hard for a long time. And at the time I was learning to play this music, it wasn’t like nowadays. I do clinics all over the world and they have many videotapes out there about this music and how to play this music. They’ve got cd’s, play along cd’s, many other people like me do clinics, Giovanni (Hildalgo), you name them, all those percussionists, they go out and do clinics all over the place. When I grew up, there was no such thing. I didn’t have anybody to show me. As a matter of fact, when I finally got enough guts and courage to go up to Mongo one time here in town, he was sitting at a bar, I went up to him and told him I had a question, ‘am I playing this pattern right?’ I’d play a pattern on a stool or something, and in those days, the Cuban conga players wouldn’t tell you too much. It was more like a secret or something or whatever. He’d look at me and he’d tell me ‘mas or manos’ which means more or less. That’s it. That’s all he’d tell me and he’d walk away. That’s the way it was in those days. He wasn’t being mean to me. It’s just that it was different in those days. Nowadays, I tray to take time when a kid comes to me. If they ask me something and I’ve got time, I’d stand there and answer questions.

JazzUSA: Are you and Mongo tight now?

PS: Oh yeah man. I talk to him about once a month. He’s been a featured soloist in our band and I’ve been featured in his band. Although, he really doesn’t have a band anymore. He’s just doing guest shots.

JazzUSA: So do you remind him of those days when you were a young buck?

PS: (laughs) Yeah, we talk about it all the time. It even goes deeper than that. I named my oldest son after him. His name is Xavier Mongo Sanchez. My son just graduated from University of California-Berkeley. He got a degree in astro-physics. He’s heavy. He just started in the job he’s always wanted, for the government, working on computers that guide nuclear warheads. As a young kid, he was playing bongos with me, and then suddenly he said, I don’t want to do that, and he got into astronomy. That was his call.

JazzUSA: And playing bongos was your call.

PS: Exactly, and that’s what he does and he carries Mongo’s name, and Mongo knows that, and Mongo tells people about when me and my wife would go see Mongo play when Mongito was still in her stomach. I used to go up to Mongo and go ‘Mongo, if it’s a boy we’re going to name it Mongo.’ So, he used to get all happy and I’d say come on and touch her stomach so we’ll have good luck. Sure enough, we had a boy and we name him Mongo. I named a boy after him, so we’re family.

JazzUSA: It sounds like you’re family. How long have you been married?

PS: We celebrated our 26th anniversary last July. I have two boys. Mongito, and the other one is 16 years old, they’re ten years apart, he’s playing saxophone in the school band. His name is Julian Tito Sanchez. Same story, Tito Purente is one of my good friends, and you know I have to be a fan if I named my sons after them. Now I play with both of them, so hey man, my dreams have come through.

Visit the Poncho Sanchez Website

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