For conga drummer Poncho Sanchez, playing Latin/jazz in nightclubs isn't just a livelihood, it's a life style.
"I love the life I'm living," the bushy-bearded percussionist said the other day at his Norwalk studio. "It would be nice if I made some great money off of this, but if I don't, it won't change a thing because I'm planning on playing Latin/jazz and bebop and salsa things in jazz clubs for the rest of my life."
Perhaps it's this ardent non-commercial attitude that's led many Latin/jazz followers to brand Sanchez as a successor to the great Cal Tjader--who died in 1982--as the torchbearer of the Latin/jazz movement.
"Yes, a lot of people have said that Cal passed the flame to me," said the 34-year-old drummer, who spent eight years with Tjader. "That's pretty heavy, but it has a lot of truth in it. The band I lead plays the same kind of flavor as the music that Cal played, and I plan to carry on in that tradition."
"Now that I'm in charge, I have all the responsibilities on my back," he said. "Before, with Cal, I was just a sideman. At times, I don't want the pressure. I just want to play my drums and not hassle all these things. But somebody has to to lead, and I guess it's just my turn."
Still, being a leader has substantial payoffs for the dynamic drummer. He's recorded five solid-selling LPs, including the recent "El Conguero" and the Grammy-nominated "Bien Sabroso"(Concord Picante), and his group plays to packed houses in clubs locally (he plays at Sugar Daddy's in Montebello on Thursday), and occasionally out of town, on most weekends. Sanchez feels his popularity comes from both high-level musicianship and an attitude that stresses professionalism in performance.
"I like to lay down the law that the band plays powerfully, right in the pocket, and I think people pick up on that," he said. "Fans tell me nobody plays as strong as we do, and that pleases me. But we prepare. The band is very tight, well rehearsed. We know what tunes we're going to do, when."
Sanchez, the youngest of 11 children, was born in Laredo, Tex., but grew up in Norwalk, listening to the Latin/jazz sounds of Machito, Tito Puente, Tjader and others that his brothers and sisters played on the phonograph. "I think I got my first Latin/jazz record when I was in junior high school. I was the only kid in my class who dug this music. I'd play it for my friends, but they didn't like it, so usually I'd have to take it off and play something more popular."
The drummer gained a wealth of experience before he was out of high school. He worked in groups that delivered everything from Rancheras , or what's known as Tex-Mex style, to more tipico , or authentic Latin (salsa) styles and soul music. It was while playing in a band that mixed the music of James Brown and Wilson Pickett with Latin/jazz tunes that Sanchez was heard by a friend of Tjader's, who said he'd recommend the drummer to the late vibraphonist. He sat in with the Tjader band one night in 1975 and began playing in the band in January, 1975. He stayed for eight years.
After Tjader's death, Sanchez played briefly with Clare Fischer's Salsa Picante--a band that the drummer was instrumental in starting--and then started his own unit. He still feels the influence of his late mentor, and others of the mainstream, non-commercial path.
"I think it's very important to follow in the footsteps of people like Cal Tjader and Willie Bobo and great bebop musicians like Charlie Parker who have left us," he said. "I'm on that same road and I'm going straight ahead with it."