MACUILXOCHITL: “Five Flower”, the Aztec god of music and dance
By Francisco H. Ciriza
Poncho Sanchez is the youngest of 11 children. He describes his parents as “beautiful” and is thankful he and his siblings shared life with them for as long as they did. The quintessential Latino family living in this country, Sanchez says, “they were from the old school...you know church and family were number one.” It is from these seemingly common and unassuming surroundings from which came the man who may one day be known as the ‘Godfather’ of Latin Jazz.
Born in Laredo, Texas in 1951, Poncho and his family soon moved to Norwalk to grow up under somewhat humble circumstances, but his soul and ears were fed like royalty by the area’s richly inspirational and heavily influential music scene.
“Growing up here in L.A. in the early fifties and sixties, we didn’t have any money. My mother was a great cook and my father was always at work. I was a little boy listening to everything from doo-wop oldies, to gospel, to Duke Ellington and Count Bassie. My brothers and sisters got into the first wave of mambo and cha cha. We’d all watch the Johnny Otis show on TV. The only reason they let him out on TV was because he wasn’t actually black. He was Greek and was married to a black woman.
You could turn on the TV and radio and have Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson all day long. But there was something that intrigued me about this other group of entertainers. To me, I always saw them as very talented. They’re something different. I could feel it. That’s what drove me. I wasn’t classically trained. I learned to play by feeling and by ear.”
In fact, the teenage Sanchez loved music so much and was so inclined to perform, he admits he would have done just about anything to have the opportunity. Another aspiring musician from the neighborhood, Benny Rodriguez, leader of his own outfit, The Chavelles, quickly became his mentor. “He taught me to play guitar,” recalls Sanchez. After a failed attempt to relocate the family to Laredo, the Sanchez family was back in Norwalk, but Sanchez soon realized his skills had not advanced while those of his neighborhood counterparts had. The only spot left for him in the neighborhood band was for a lead singer.
“They told me, ‘ all of us have tried... you want to try?’ I wanted to be in the band so badly that I jumped at it. After one song, they looked at me and said, ‘man you sound great.’ They gave me a stack of 45’s and a few lyrics and I proceeded to learn all the songs for a gig we had coming up real soon.”
His upbringing washed continued waves of musical trends over him. He learned moves by watching James Brown on television every chance he got and took to each musical opportunity as eagerly and enthusiastically as his first. Sanchez picked up the drums in high school started playing R&B bands and rock bands in a group with a group named The Latin Boys. They experimented combining seemingly odd mixes of genres like Tex-Mex style polkas, cumbia, cha cha chat. Along the way Sanchez learned to sing and play drums simultaneously by accident . “From then on, no matter what instrument I played in a band, I always had to sing, too,” Sanchez laughs.
Fittingly, it was around the time of this discovery that Poncho and his father purchased a set of conga’s and tumbles for $68 a piece. And it was at this time prophetic thoughts and tendencies began to overtake and eventually consume Sanchez. “All this time I was playing with all these bands, musica Latina, musica tropical, salsa had not been used yet. My friends didn’t know about it. In high school, I started doing some Latin jazz. I’d show them Tito Puente records, when they were listening to Hendrix and acid rock. I was a messenger. I didn’t invent it... Chalo Poso met the great Dizzy Gillespie somewhere around 1939...they’re usually credited with creating latin jazz. I was born in the U.S.A. I’ve always loved this country and my heritage and of course, music. For many years all I did was spread the world. “
Sanchez and his band continue spreading the word by staying booked as much as they wanted to stay booked. They can travel to New York City to play the famous Blue Note where they’ve soldout weeks at a time. Their travels include Europe and Japan and have been together for more than twenty-five years.
Sanchez’s upcoming CD release on Concord Records features the sound about which he has spread the word for so many years. He describes Latin jazz as a mixture of the sophistication of American jazz standard melodies and harmonies backed up by latin rhythms. The disc also includes some impressive guests like Ray Charles who Sanchez says, “sounds so good. He’s such an amazing guy.” Also on the record are Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame as well as musicians Fred Westby and Pee Wee Ellis, well known from their work with James Brown.
Sanchez and his band play San Diego’s KCFM Jazz Festival, Saturday, May 24 at 4:00PM. For more information, call 858-587-6724.