Mark McDermott

Living by the Latin Beat: the life and love of Poncho Sanchez

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Poncho Sanchez got his start playing with Cal Tjader at Concerts by the Pier at the Redondo Beach Pier. Forty years later he plays at the BeachLife Festival a few hundred yards away from where it all began. Photo by Devin DeHaven

by Whitney Youngs

Imagine this: born in Laredo, Texas, to Mexican immigrants, you are the youngest of 11. In 1954, when you are just a toddler, your family relocates to Norwalk, California. You grow up in a town of modest single-story stucco houses lining cramped one-way streets run by local gangs, one generation after the next, since the 1940s. In fact, you knew the One-Ways, as the barrio is named, when the streets were dirt roads, “before they paved them and put in sidewalks and curbs that made the streets very narrow so they could only make them one way.”

With six sisters and four brothers, you see it all, you hear it all, since they “are the ones watching TV and listening to the radio.” You watch them learn new dance steps; you listen to their music: jazz, soul, rhythm and blues and a wave of Música Tropical songs that hit the golden state with hurricane force, arriving on land from Cuba and Puerto Rico by way of New York City. This music, the mambo and cha-cha-chá, sounds so unlike traditional Mexican music like mariachi and ranchera, and it draws your siblings to dances hosted by the local disc jockey Chico Sesma at the Hollywood Palladium, where they sway and spin to the orchestras of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodríguez. As a boy, you remember your brothers and sisters playing all sorts of records, and you would listen and “just look at the album covers.”

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You hit your teens and begin to play the guitar. You audition and land the lead singer spot in an R&B band, the Halos, that practices across the street from your house. In high school, you get a pair of congas and teach yourself how to play in your father’s garage by listening to Cal Tjader albums, among others. By the early 1970s, you are an amateur musician, playing the local L.A. Latin music circuit for the past 10 years. You play weekends and nights in the band, Sabor, but you keep your day job, working at the foundry in South Gate.

One night, Sabor is playing at the Latin American Press Club in Pico Rivera, and a gringo walks in. You notice him because he sticks “out like a sore thumb” among an audience of Chicanas and Chicanos. After the first set, you walk to the bar to buy a beer. The white man approaches you. He praises your performance and offers to buy you a drink. “If you’re buying, I’m drinking,” you say. You forget about the beer and order a cocktail. The man introduces himself. His name is Ernie and he lives just around the block. He says he’s a friend of Cal Tjader and he plans on telling Cal about you. “Man, this guy is lying,” you think. You chat for a bit and it’s time for the next set. “Thanks, Ernie, for the drink and don’t forget to tell your friend Cal about me,” you say. On the bandstand, you tell your fellow musicians about Ernie. You all laugh, you remember thinking, “We didn’t believe this guy for nothing.”

A couple of weeks later, you drive to Redondo Beach; Cal Tjader is playing at Concerts by the Sea, a venue where you’ve seen Freddie Hubbard, Willie Bobo, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, The Jazz Crusaders and “Mongo” Santamaría. You walk in and see Ernie talking to Tjader. Introductions are made and Tjader invites you to sit in. “When?” you ask. “Tonight!” he replies. Tjader calls you up from the crowd. You sit in for one song, you solo, and you think, “I can live with this for the rest of my life, saying that I sat in on one song with Cal Tjader’s band.” But Tjader asks you to finish out the set, so you sit in on a few more songs.

New Year’s Eve, 1974, Tjader hires you to play with his new band at the iconic Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel, and after the first set he asks you to join his band. You gleefully accept.

Now imagine it all happening to you by the age of 23. This is the life of Poncho Sanchez, the veteran percussionist and singer in the Latin jazz and salsa music scene.  

Over the next seven years, Sanchez played in Tjader’s band, up until his death in 1982.

“Cal was the greatest, the greatest vibe player that ever lived,” explains Sanchez. “Nobody sounds like him, nobody plays like him, he had the smoothest touch to the vibes. He played purty.”

After Tjader’s death, Sanchez broke out on his own and signed with the Concord Records label, recording 27 albums over 30 years. He’s spent more than 40 years touring the world, traveling with a songbook containing more than 250 songs.

“I’ve been blessed,” Sanchez says.  “So I have a lot of music to choose from.”

Poncho Sanchez plays BeachLife Festival May 5.

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