Sanchez and eight-piece ensemble bring Latin jazz to Hop
By Patrick Chen, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, April 19, 2012
Tonight, world-renowned conga player Poncho Sanchez — dubbed the “symbol of Latin jazz” by the Los Angeles Times — and his eight-piece Latin jazz ensemble will grace the Spaulding Auditorium stage to pay tribute to the origins of the Latin jazz genre. Sanchez, a two time Grammy-award winner, is famous for his vibrant and soulful live performances, and tonight’s performance will spotlight a collaboration with the legendary trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie and percussionist Chano Pozo.
“Latin jazz really all started when Dizzy met Chano in the ’40s in New York City,” Sanchez said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “Dizzy was already really famous on the trumpet, and he had his band, but for some reason he wanted to play around with Latin rhythms.”
Sanchez considers both men the “pioneers of Latin Jazz” and said that the collaboration story itself is amazing in that even though Chano could not speak English and Gillespie could not speak Spanish, they were able to collaborate and create the monumental Cubano Be, Cubano Bop.
“I’ve loved Gillespie’s stuff since I was a kid, I used to wear this brown beret just like him back when I was a kid in school,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said his passion for music came early from growing up in a large family. Sanchez was born in Texas and is the youngest in a family of 11 children. He first began to take an interest in the music of the 1960s from his older sisters and brothers when his family moved to Los Angeles, he said.
“My older brothers and sisters caught the first wave of mambo and ‘cha cha cha’ in California, which had come by way of [New York City] and Puerto Rico,” Sanchez said. “I was listening to that stuff all day.”
Sanchez explained that he was lucky to be in Los Angeles because it was one of the few places possible to listen to the newest and hottest jazz, pop and rock of the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, even though he was a teen when rock music began to pick up, Sanchez found his taste of music was at odds with his friends.
“I never really liked rock music — I’d be listening to these old jazz records I found and my friends would be like, ‘Why are you listening to that old music?’” Sanchez said. “Now they tell me, ‘Man, Poncho, you were ahead of your time.’”
Having listened to his albums and viewed clips of his live performances prior to the interview, I can attest to the Legend’s musical prowess, and he is an extremely adept conga player. But to my surprise, Sanchez was never formally trained. Sanchez said he began his musical career when he intended to play guitar in a neighborhood soul and funk band, but he instead became the band’s lead singer, singing the likes of James Brown.
“I finally got a hold of these old beat up congas and I listened to some old records and I taught myself to play them in high school,” he said. “I was some kid playing in the garage, which is funny because I make DVDs and instructional [videos] now.”
Sanchez said he does not find it difficult to balance his dual role as both a group leader and an instrumentalist, and he finds himself working closely with his fellow members.
“I write tunes through my piano players or other guys in the band,” he said. “I sit there and hum my ideas, and they put it down on paper for me. I know how to make music — just don’t know how to write it.”
Sanchez is currently working on a new tribute CD to Latin band leaders, he said. He is also excited about a possible future adaptation of his work to a full-sized symphony orchestra.
“I’m excited to play up there in New Hampshire — it’s been awhile,” Sanchez said. “We’re gonna jump, shout and shimmy. If there’s a place to dance there, I’d bring dancing shoes.”