Poncho Sanchez and Marlon Brando Once Bonded Over Bongos

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For a Grammy-winning Latin-jazz artist raised in the shadow of LA, Poncho Sanchez is hardly a Hollywood type. When he's not traveling the world, you're far more likely to find the Norwalk-born conguero in OC or Long Beach, where he'll be performing again at this weekend's Long Beach Jazz Festival.

Of course, there was a time when the godfather of the congas struck up an unexpected friendship with the Godfather of Tinsel Town. "It was 1976. I had been working with [legendary vibraphonist] Cal Tjader for about a year, and Cal told me Marlon Brando and Merv Griffin were coming to our matinee set at the Hong Kong Bar at the Century Plaza Hotel," recalls Sanchez, calling from his Whittier home.

At the time, Sanchez was in his mid 20s, building a strong reputation with his mighty palms. He stayed with Tjader until his death in 1982 and managed to score a record contract with Concord Records based on the strong endorsement of his employer. In that 30-year span, Sanchez has released more than 25 albums under his name, earning a Latin-jazz Grammy in 2000 for his simmering live album Latin Soul.

"Marlon used to sit in with Cal out in East LA at a place called the M Club back in the early '60s," he says. "He'd come in, have some drinks and play the bongos. So I told Cal, 'Introduce me, introduce me.'" Sanchez's brief conversation with Brando revealed his surprising familiarity with Latin percussionists. "He told me, 'Poncho, I love the conga drum! Mongo Santamaría! Tito Puente! The greats!" It was a once-in-a-lifetime brush with celebrity that would have made for a good anecdote on its own. Little did Sanchez know, that was only the beginning.

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