Heart of the Conga

Southern California’s own conguero carries on the traditions of Tjader, Puente and Santamaria

For more than three decades, as both a leader and a sideman, conguero Poncho Sanchez has stirred up a fiery stew of jazz, soul, and infectious Latin and South American rhythms. Among the prominent figures who have inspired him and his music are two of the primary architects of Latin jazz – conga drummer and composer Chano Pozo and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Sanchez is one of the most influential conga players and percussionists in Afro-Cuban jazz and one of the most popular performers in the history of the Blue Jay Jazz Festival. Prior to his most recent appearance, in 2018, he headlined concerts in 2000, 2009, and 2011 through ’15. In addition to recording as a soloist, he has been featured on albums by the Jazz Crusaders, Eddie Harris, Freddie Hubbard, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Dianne Reeves, Joey DeFrancesco, and Terence Blanchard.

Born in Laredo, Texas, in 1951 to a large Mexican-American family, Sanchez grew up in a suburb of L.A., where he heard an unusual cross section of straight ahead jazz, Latin jazz, and American soul. By his teen years, he had developed a musical consciousness by listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cal Tjader, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Santamaria. He had taught himself to play guitar, flute, drums and timbales, but eventually settled on congas. Already a veteran of the local club scene by 1975, he landed a permanent spot in Cal Tjader’s band at 24. He remained with Tjader until his death in 1982. That year he signed with Concord, beginning a relationship with the label that would last more than a quarter century.

After more than two decades in music, Sanchez’s efforts paid off when his album, Latin Soul, received a Grammy Award as Best Latin Album of 1999. Throughout the next decade, Sanchez continued to record, releasing such albums as Soul of the Conga (2000), Latin Spirits (2001), Out of Sight! (2003), Do It! (2005), Raise Your Hand (2007), and hard bop-influenced Psychedelic Blues (2009). In 2011, he paid tribute to his legendary heroes by recording Chano y Dizzy! with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and followed it up with a concert set entitled Live in Hollywood, with his Latin Jazz Band.

Sanchez says that, to him, “Latin jazz is the world’s greatest music. It has the melodic and harmonic sophistication of jazz and American standards, and the flavor and energy of Latin American music. What I’m most proud of is that this music — while it may sound exotic at times — is from America.”

For more on Poncho Sanchez visit his website at www.ponchosanchez.com and read an interview with him here.

Photo: Poncho Sanchez at the 2018 Blue Jay Jazz Festival (photo by Hugh Bialecki)