Exclusive Feature

Robert “Bob” Sancho—Influential in the Rise of Latin Jazz in the Bronx

Robert Sancho is known for his influential hand in the rise of Latin Jazz in the Bronx. Sancho is passionate about Latin Jazz and is always looking for more opportunities to create a platform for this music form to be popular again. With over 40 years of service, Sancho has selflessly committed his time and efforts to advance the appreciation of Latin Jazz and performing arts through decades of community service in the Bronx area.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Sancho’s love and appreciation for Latin music started at an early age. His mother is Puerto Rican, and his father is Costa Rican. In our interview, Robert Sancho joked, “That makes me more Rican than anybody else.”

While growing up and attending school in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood of the Bronx, Sancho met many musicians and percussionists who attended the same junior high school as him, all at different times. He was able to experience firsthand inspirational Latin musicians like Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and Orlando Marin. He recalled how they would jam on the playground, and how their sound was very influential in his appreciation for Latin music.

Sancho also remembered living just around the corner from a dance hall called El Club Cubano Inter-Americano where many Latin Jazz Artists, like one of Sancho’s favorites, Tito Puente, used to perform. At fifteen, he was able to sit outside the club and hear the beautiful sounds of Latin Jazz from the many bands and musicians who frequented there. 

This incredible new form of music was launched by Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie became popular all over the world.   “There’s no way, once you hear it, that you’re not going to be interested in it,” said Sancho. 

Sancho explained in our interview that most Latin rhythms came out of Cuba like the cha-cha, guaracha, rumba, and many others. These rhythms from Cuba influenced many Puerto Rican and Dominican artists. One of the greatest Latin musicians who was able to popularize this genre of music was Machito and his Afro-Cubans. Because groups like this were influential in defining this new fusion of music styles that made up Latin Jazz, Sancho was inspired to promote and be a valuable piece in the advancement and popularity of the genre. 

Since there is a huge population of Latin Americans in the Bronx, Sancho saw the value in giving Latin Jazz artists a space and stage to gain appreciation and support. Every September over the last twenty years, on a volunteer basis, Robert Sancho produces the Lehman Center for Performing Arts’ first concert of the season, which supports and showcases Latin American talent in his community.   All profits are donated to the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. 

This year’s concert that Sancho is producing for the Lehman Center for Performing Arts will feature Latin Jazz legends Eddie Palmieri, Nelson González, Johnny Rodriguez and Emilio Morales to name a few.  

In addition to his support of Latin American artists in the Bronx, Sancho has passionately supported artists around the world. Since 1989, Sancho has frequently traveled to Cuba and explained how despite the difficulty throughout the course of his career, he’s tried to bring over several Latin American artists to America to perform. One Cuban artist that he worked with was Chucho Valdes. He flew Valdes to America to perform and do concerts in New York City. 

In our interview, Sancho mentioned that the first four times he was at the airport with Valdes, they were able to walk around without being bothered, but after his fifth visit to the States, there were over 3,000 people waiting in the airport to see him. Sancho’s influence helped this artist gain more popularity in America, where Valdes now is a regular guest performer at Jazz at Lincoln Center. 

When asked how he first got involved with the Latin Jazz and performing arts community, he said, “My favorite artist was always Tito Puente, and Tito lived in the Bronx. So did Tito Rodríguez. Machito lived in the Bronx until the day he passed away. So, I used to see them perform locally. Later on, I worked for the Board of Education for about 12 years. During that time, Tito Puente asked me to be his consultant and advisor for his scholarship fund.” 

Because of his work with Tito Puente, Sancho had the amazing opportunity of going to the White House with him in the 90s when Puente performed for former president Bill Clinton. After that performance, Sancho recalled receiving a letter from the White House, addressed to him, because they didn’t have Tito Puente’s address. Sancho still has a copy of that letter with the photo of Puente shaking hands with Bill Clinton. Tito Puente knew many Latin artists across the globe and proved to be a great connection for Sancho in his effort to give Latin artists a bigger platform. 

(Tito Puente with Bill Clinton)

In addition to his direct experience with several Latin Jazz artists, Sancho was also involved in two documentaries promoting and remembering Latin Jazz artists Machito and Puente. These films were called Machito: A Latin Jazz Legacy and In the Life of Tito Puente. Sancho also had the opportunity to get a live band together with several talented Latin Jazz artists to perform live on Channel 13 as a fundraiser for the Latin community in the Bronx.  

Sancho has had the opportunity to work with the Mambo Legends Orchestra, Tito Puente and His Orchestra, José Feliciano, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Machito Orchestra, Nelson Gonzalez, Johnny Rodriguez, and many other amazing Latin Jazz artists. He also brought in several artists from Cuba including Chucho Valdes and Emilio Morales. In our interview, Sancho said he’s “been able to hang out and listen to all the stories of the old days” because of the many artists he has been able to make connections with. 

Robert Sancho’s passion for Latin Jazz has inspired him to create platforms to make this style popular again. Within the decade, Latin Jazz has lost popularity and multiple outlets. It’s no longer being played on the radio or being promoted as aggressively as when it first became popular in the 1940s. Sancho said, “In general, Latin music has declined. Fifty percent of the radio stations that play jazz around the United States have closed down in the last ten years. With jazz, you know, if you don’t hear it, you’re not gonna create any interest in the music. We don’t have outlets.” 

Throughout his career, Sancho saw the importance of always looking for different ways to give Latin Jazz a platform to shine and grow. He said, “One of the reasons I was able to help finance the book on Tito Puente (Mambo Diablo: My Journey with Tito Puente) by Joe Conzo and David Pérez was because I felt somebody might pick it up and make it into a movie, and then that may bring back that type of music to the forefront again. But that didn’t happen.” 

Sancho said that the most rewarding part of his music journey in providing outlets for Latin Jazz musicians was definitely the performances. Since he was often busy arranging the concerts and working backstage during the shows, he rarely got to witness the performances live; however, he made sure that every performance was recorded so he could listen to each one for weeks. Robert Sancho loves the sounds of live performances.

Almost as passionately as his love for music, Sancho loves his community and has dedicated the last 41 years to making the Bronx a better place through music, education, and healthcare. 

Currently, Robert Sancho works as the Vice President of Development and External Affairs for BronxCare Health System, where he is assisting local residents in accessing essential healthcare services.    

(Robert and his wife Nydia)

During the 1960s, Mayor Koch attempted to shut down Metropolitan Hospital Center.  Mr. Sancho was hired by the hospital to organize the community against the closure.  After a two-and-a-half-year struggle, they were able to win that struggle.   

His dedication and commitment to his community doesn’t end there. Robert Sancho has fundraised for the Bronx Council on the Arts and Bronx Children’s Museum.  He’s served on the Board of Trustees for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the Community Service Society of New York, as an Advisor for the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, and as a Voting Member of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, as Chairman of the Bronx Museum, and as a Member of the Multicultural Committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Robert also serves as a Member of the Board of Trustees for the Center of Educational Innovation/Public Education Association, the Icahn Charter Schools, the Lehman College Foundation Board of Directors, and the Hostos Community College Foundation Board of Directors

In addition to his extensive and continual community service, in June 2022, Robert received the Beyond Category Award from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  Robert is also looking forward to the concert that he is producing for the Lehman Center for Performing Arts in September 2022. 

Without a doubt, Robert Sancho has assisted in creating an amazing, lasting legacy by impacting his community through music, education, and healthcare.


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