Poncho Sanchez on Stage with Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie

Photo by Devin DeHaven
Photo by Devin DeHaven

Latin jazz bandleader and congero Poncho Sanchez never met Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, but he did hear his music. Growing up in Los Angeles during the 1950s, Sanchez spent lots of time watching his older sisters dance the mambo and cha-cha-cha to their Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, and Dizzy Gillespie records which featured many songs written by Chano Pozo. It was an early start for Sanchez who would go on to become a legendary musician in his own right.

With some 30 years as a bandleader, Sanchez is still captivated by the rhythms he first heard as a kid. His latest CD, Chano Y Dizzy!, a tribute album he recorded with trumpet player Terence Blanchard, pays homage to two of the greatest Latin jazz players ever - Pozo and American trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie.

"Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie were the pioneers of Latin jazz," Sanchez tells Art Attack. "They get credited for inventing Latin jazz in the mid-1940s when they met."

Over the years, Sanchez has recorded several of their songs, either as a member of Cal Tjader's band or his own. When his manager suggested Sanchez do a tribute album to the legendary pair rather than just include a few of their tunes on his next CD, Sanchez eagerly agreed. Not only because of his love for the music, but also out of a desire to keep their names and music in the popular culture.

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"The pop world, they don't know who Chano Pozo or Dizzy Gillespie are," he says. "When you mention Dizzy Gillespie, people say, 'Oh, that's that guy with the crooked trumpet and the big cheeks.' But that's all they know about him, they don't know what he stands for and what songs he wrote.

"I had the honor and pleasure of working with Dizzy; I was a guest with his band and then he was a guest with my band. Dizzy was a great guy, he was a great American."

After less than three years in New York City, Pozo was killed in bar fight in Spanish Harlem at age 33. In so little time, Pozo nonetheless made his stamp on Latin jazz; Sanchez wonders what contribution Pozo would have made had he lived. "Chano Pozo was just a cat from the streets," says Sanchez. "He was from the barrios of Havana. He was a tough dude, a street guy. And he wasn't a great conga player, but he was a great writer."

Sanchez opens his new CD with a medley of Chano Pozo tunes, "Tin Tin Deo," which Pozo wrote with Walter Fuller, "Manteca"which he wrote with Dizzy Gillespie and "Guachi Guaro," which the three wrote together.

"I wanted to pick the more popular ones that everybody knew and do a new twist on them. And also do some of the ones that even jazz aficionados don't know about, like "Ariñañara." That's a tune that a lot of salsa bands do these day, but it's really not heard in Latin jazz."

Poncho Sanchez and Terrence Blanchard appear in the concert Cubano Be! Cubano Bop!, presented by Da Camera Saturday at the Wortham Theater Center. For tickets, visit www.dacamera.com or call 713-524-5050.

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