All that jazz, and then some

Poncho Sanchez only had one professional conga lesson.

The class, which took place in the garage at his mother's house, was a treat from his sister while he was still in high school.

"He had asked me to play a little bit of Cal Tjader, and after, he actually started asking me questions," Sanchez said. "I remember he said, 'How did you do that with your left hand? It sounded great!'"

The teacher thought Sanchez had been playing the single-headed Cuban drum for six or seven years. It had, in fact, only been six weeks.

"I remember that I would go to various clubs in Los Angeles and make sure that I sat [in the] front row so I could closely watch and make sure that I was learning correctly," Sanchez, 61, said via email. "So, I guess I could say that my heroes literally taught me."

The Grammy Award-winning musician will be at the Festival of Arts grounds from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, backed by his Latin Jazz Band.

Returning for the fourth time in a decade, Sanchez is a fan of the Festival, which appeals to both families and art aficionados, he said. It stands to reason that the Whittier resident will be accompanied by his family — kids, grandkids, siblings — as he presents fan favorites and new Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa and Latin soul music.

"It doesn't take long for the fun to start once Poncho's band starts to play," remarked Susan Davis, the Festival's director of special events and member services for 13 years. "He has an infectious energy that quickly results in the audience on their feet and dancing."

According to Davis, her responsibility of developing a music series and lineup of events that complements the Pageant of the Masters and the Festival's Fine Art Show is very rewarding. She particularly enjoys watching guests being swept up in the excitement and fun.

This year, performers from the Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego areas include the Laguna Concert Band, Jason Feddy, Peter Dobson and the Missiles of October. Trumpeter Tony Guerrero kicked off the summer's festivities, which also featured Bay Area-based world music band David Correa and Cascada.

Davis, who selects a mix of jazz, blues, world music and other genres to enrich the outdoor art exhibit, counts jazz saxophonist Greg Vail, bassist Max Bennett and keyboardist Rob Mullins among the festival's veteran musicians. She is also looking forward to modern rock band Quattro's imminent debut at the grounds.

Although the current season doesn't conclude for more than a month, Davis is already hip-deep in preparations for next year's series. A staunch believer in supporting the arts colony of Laguna Beach, she appreciates programs that demonstrate the pervasiveness of arts in daily life.

"I believe this type of programming is more important now than ever," she said. "Funding for the arts has diminished significantly for an entire generation of students. One of the great things about all our programming here is the exposure one gets to art and creative thinking."

Sanchez would agree.

The artist, who relocated from Laredo, Texas, to a Chicano neighborhood in Los Angeles, recalled the ubiquitous presence of music in his childhood.

"[My siblings] would dance around their rooms to Tito Puente, Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, among many others," said Sanchez, who routinely listened to jazz on the radio. "My neighbors also played music — mainly rhythm and blues — and I used to watch them rehearse. Those were my first few greatest exposures to music."

Growing up without a lot of money, the youngest of 11 siblings treasures memories of playing music together at family functions. The passion stayed with Sanchez, to the extent that he even named his sons Mongo and Tito.

Having dabbled with the flute, percussion and singing, Sanchez continues to experiment, as evidenced by "Soul of the Conga" in 2000, "Psychedelic Blues" in 2009 and "Chano y Dizzy!" in 2011. He particularly enjoys collaborating with big-name entertainers like Terence Blanchard, Freddie Hubbard and more.

"We invite them into our family, and it makes our family even bigger," said Sanchez, who won the Latin Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

A partnership that stands a class apart is the seven and a half years he spent with Latin jazz musician Tjader, starting on New Year's Eve at Coconut Grove in Los Angeles in 1974. What Sanchez initially mistook as a week-long gig ended up encompassing a dozen records and a Grammy Award before Tjader's fatal heart attack in 1982.

"He was my musical father and I still, after all these years, listen to him today," Sanchez said. "He died 31 years ago and is still in all my music."

If You Go

What: Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band

Where: Festival of Arts, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday

Cost: Free with Festival admission; limited reserved seating available for $25

Information: or (800) 487-3378

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