While guitarists and lead singers get the most attention for their acrobatic stage moves, any musician will tell you that it's the drummers who are typically the finest physical specimens in most bands.
For proof, just ask Poncho Sanchez, the master conga player who recently turned 60. Sanchez, one of the deans of Latin jazz, recently released his 25th album as a bandleader, Chano y Dizzy! He continues to travel the globe and pound the drums as the leader of an energetic 10-piece ensemble.
"When I was younger, I went a little crazy, drinking and eating my barbecue ribs; one day I thought, 'Hey, man, you'd better chill!'" says the Grammy-winning Latin legend of the healthier lifestyle he's settled into, thanks to the help of his wife of 40 years, Stella.
"During the week we eat salads, fruits, chicken and rice," he explains. "On weekends we splurge and eat what we want. I take multivitamins and enzymes, and almost every day we take our weenie dogs, Tjader and Mambo, for a two-mile walk around the park — for them AND for us!"
His regimen seems to be working. Sanchez is in great form on Chano, his new collaboration with acclaimed trumpeter and film composer Terence Blanchard. The men pay tribute to the historic 1947 collaboration between Cuban conga player Chano Pozo ("Manteca") and iconic jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, which helped open the doors in America to the Afro-Cuban sound.
Sanchez recently performed a sizzling set at this year's AARP National Event & Expo, Life@50+, where his "soul Latino" review, featuring Memphis soul singer Eddie Floyd, had the audience boogalooing in the aisles and snapping pictures. Always on the move, Sanchez spoke to us as he prepared to take his award-winning ensemble on the road to Hong Kong, China and South Korea.
"I learned about Chano in junior high through his classic recording of Manteca [with] Gillespie," says Sanchez, who was born in Laredo, Texas, before relocating to Los Angeles as a boy and working his way up to gigs with such jazz standard-bearers as Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente and Hugh Masekela. "He was a great conga drummer and rhumba dancer from Cuba with a great mind for thinking up amazing tunes. He was only on the New York jazz scene for three years before he was shot and killed at the Rio Cafe. Imagine if he had lived another 30?"
Though his touring pace has slowed a bit in recent years, focusing mostly on international jazz festivals, universities and the occasional club gig, Sanchez says that he's finally learned how to pace himself during his shows to avoid peaking early.
"In all my shows I play a couple of good conga solos, strong and brave," he says. "But I get up and sing a bolero, play guiro, maracas and a little drums. It is necessary to move around the stage and vary [your playing] slightly."
The youngest of 11 children, Sanchez also knows the importance of taking care of those around him and making sure they are happy, especially in these hard economic times.
"I also [worry] a lot about my band," he says. "I wanted my players to continue working, but earn $75 or $100 a night. I think I am the only leader of a Latin jazz band in Los Angeles that pays retirement and health insurance to their musicians!"
That also explains why his company, Poncho Sanchez Enterprises, LLC, acts like a family on a budget. "I have my travel agent booking tickets five months in advance to get the best hotel and air fares," he explains. "A successful musician MUST be a good businessman!"