The fire in Poncho Sanchez's heart led him to Latin jazz

Percussionist Poncho Sanchez plays Saturday at the SLO Jazz Festival in San Luis Obispo.
Percussionist Poncho Sanchez plays Saturday at the SLO Jazz Festival in San Luis Obispo.

In junior high school, percussionist Poncho Sanchez would fall asleep with a tiny transistor radio tuned to a Los Angeles jazz station perched by his head. 

Each night, he’d doze off to the music of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. 

“Those guys were my heroes,” he recalled. 

Today, Sanchez is considered one of the living legends of Latin jazz. The Grammy Award-winning conguero, or conga player, will headline Saturday’s inaugural SLO Jazz Festival in downtown San Luis Obispo. 

“I always tell people, “If you show up in San Luis Obispo on that day, you’re guaranteed to have a good time,’” said Sanchez, whose band specializes in an exuberant blend of salsa, Latin jazz and Latin soul.

“When you come to one of my concerts, if you sit down the whole concert, then you didn’t get it,” he said. “Sooner or later, people are going to get up. Next thing you know, people are dancing in the aisles.” 

The youngest of 11 children, Sanchez got his first exposure to Latin jazz when his family moved from Laredo, Texas, to Norwalk, Calif., in 1954.

“By the time we got to California, my brothers and sisters got ahold of the radio and the television,” he recalled, and started tuning in to hear mambo, cha-cha and salsa, known in those days as “música latina” or “música cubana.” Sanchez remembers watching his six sisters practice their dance moves in the living room, getting ready to strut their stuff at the Hollywood Palladium. 

“All that rhythm, it just makes you want to dance. It makes you feel good. It makes you happy,” he said. 

Jazz was another frequent visitor to the Sanchez home, said the performer, who also dug doo-wop, funk, gospel and rhythm and blues. He remembers listening to Latin jazz musicians including Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader as well as big band standouts such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.  

Sanchez was particularly fascinated by Tjader, whose music he found “more melodic and sophisticated” than the salsa he was used to hearing. “I wanted to understand it,” he said.

As a ninth-grader, he frequently went to watch the Grammy-winning vibraphonist play at the Lighthouse Café nightclub in Newport Beach. The young musician, who picked up the conga after flirtations with guitar, flute, drums and timbales, dreamed of someday playing with Tjader.

His dream came true on New Year’s Eve 1975, when Tjader hired the 24-year-old as an official member of his band. Sanchez considers that night the beginning of his professional career.

Sanchez spent seven and a half years playing and recording with Tjader, remaining with the bandleader until his death in the Philippines in 1982. 

Shortly before his death, Tjader suggested that Conchord Records founder Carl Jefferson sign Sanchez to his Conchord Picante imprint. The conguero celebrated his 30th anniversary with the label in 2012 with the release of his 26th Conchord Picante album, “Live in Hollywood.”

Sanchez, who’s currently working on an album-length tribute to Coltrane, described Tjader as his “musical father” and mentor.

“He never actually sat down and said, ‘OK, Poncho, this is how it works.’ He never wrote (anything) out on a chalkboard for me,” Sanchez explained. “I learned a great deal just by being around him — how to conduct myself around people, how to speak into a microphone.”

Sanchez also learned how to blur the lines between musical genres by lending certain songs a Latin groove. 

“To me, it’s natural,” he said. “This is the way I was raised.”

Over the past 30-plus years, Sanchez and his band have garnered nine Grammy nominations — and a 2002 Grammy win for Best Latin Jazz Performance statuette for the album “Latin Soul.” 

Sanchez himself received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Recording Academy in 2012.

“It’s a little scary, especially for a kid from the neighborhood. It’s like, ‘How did I get here?’ ” he said. 

“I didn’t go to college or a big university for this,” Sanchez said. “I felt this fire burning in my heart and soul so much I had to go for it. I knew it was my calling.”

Sanchez said he doesn’t mind his status as one of Latin jazz’s standard- bearers.

“It comes with the territory,” he said, noting that his band has helped popularize the genre around the globe. “You have to carry your weight. You have to be a spokesperson for the life of the music, spreading the word of Latin jazz.”


SLO Jazz Festival 

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday

Mission Plaza, San Luis Obispo

$35, $20 students


Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.