Hot off the heels of winning a Latin Grammy for working with salsa star Victor Manuelle — and being nominated in four different categories — musician and producer Marcos Sánchez reflected back on his time growing up in New Haven, and going to Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School.
“That’s basically how I ended up doing what I’m doing,” Sánchez said, crediting in particular music teacher Patrick Smith. “He was disciplined but gave us space to create. Through him I discovered that I wanted to be a producer. He’s responsible for every little bit of success.”
In a sense, though, his childhood growing up the son of a Pentecostal minister was his first teacher. “I started playing in church as a young kid and to me that was the best school out there,” Sánchez said. “When you’re playing in church you have to open your ears to different styles. Spanish churches, their repertoire is pretty broad. That was a big help.” He started playing the drums at the age of three and piano at five.
His elementary school music teacher at Truman School, Harriet Alfred, “saw the promise” in him, Sánchez said. “Every time there was an activity, I would play the piano.“ David Fowler, Sánchez’s music teacher at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, where Sánchez went to middle school, saw it too. Fowler also “saw a couple flaws in my technique, and he sat me down at the piano and explained a couple things.”
But going to Co-op High School was a “game changer,” Sánchez said. “I met so many different young kids my age that were really talented. It was a positive competition in terms of getting your stuff together.”
Sánchez met Smith during his sophomore year at Co-op. Smith is the lead teacher in the music department at Co-Op, having started working there in 1998. He runs the jazz program and the wind ensemble there and teaches music theory, along with three other teachers.
“He really tied things together,” Sánchez said. “He was like a father figure to all of us. He would leave school at 9 p.m.” Sánchez arrived at Co-op “a musician by ear,” he said. “I didn’t have classical training or formal training, and Smith got me to the point where I could read music and learn theory.” He also arranged for classes for Sánchez at Neighborhood Music School, which led him to Litchfield Jazz Camp and a summer conservatory at Eastman School of Music.
“He really knew that we had potential to do great things,” Sánchez said.
Smith had Sánchez as a student for three years. Sánchez knew he was interested in producing and arranging music in addition to playing it. “I started fiddling around with local home studios” before high school, he said. “When it got into arranging and producing I didn’t know what I was doing but I gave it a shot.” Smith introduced a new level of discipline to it. He also “took the whole music class and decided to cut a record,” Sánchez said. The class visited TNA Records and Studios in Wallingford to do it. “I remember walking into the studio and telling him, ‘this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’”
Sánchez graduated Co-op High in 2001. He applied to the Hartt School, the music conservatory at the University of Hartford, and got in. He spent a year there studying jazz performance. “I learned so much at Co-op that it was kind of a breeze,” Sánchez said. “We left school really prepared in our craft.”
His training at Hartt was cut short when he became a father. “I had to get out and make some money,” Sánchez said. He was ready. “I was doing professional gigs as a high school student,” he said. So he “started working in the music industry.” He started meeting a lot of musicians and making connections. In 2004 those connections brought him to Puerto Rico.
“I came to Puerto Rico for a recording session,” Sánchez said. “They hired me to play piano.” His parents were from Puerto Rico, and he had visited his grandparents there, but when he arrived, he didn’t feel like he knew the island well. That changed fast.
“I was out here for a week and a half and everyone was telling me, ‘you’re young and know what you’re doing and you have good taste,’” Sánchez said. On the return flight back to New York, he decided he was going to move there, and did, a few months later.
“I kind of had a feeling that I could do something out here,” Sánchez said. Within a year and a half, he was playing a lot of local gigs. Within two years, he had signed with Sony. He finished his college education at Full Sail University in Orlando in 2014. And he crossed paths with Victor Manuelle.
“We hooked up throughout the years,” Sánchez said. “I’d been working with a lot of salsa musicians. We started talking years ago. Sure enough, he called me for this record. I wasn’t expecting it and I was really honored to be a part of it.” He produced a couple tracks on Manuelle’s latest, 25/7, and played piano on most of the record. “It was a big family thing,” Sánchez said.
25/7 won its Latin Grammy in November for best salsa album of the year. But Sánchez was nominated in other categories as well. “For me, being nominated is more important. It was huge.”
Two of his nominations were for his work with singer-songwriter Kany Garcia. “That’s a very important project to me,” Sánchez said. “She got to me because I was producing music for television,” he said. She saw him play piano and “wanted me to part of an album she was producing in Colombia in 2012. I was just the piano player,” he said. But “that’s how we started talking and doing music together.”
“I was flying back home and she said, ‘hey I need a music director, would you be interested in that?’” Sánchez said. He was on tour at the time. When that tour ended, he agreed. They started co-writing songs, doing arrangements for them, and recording them. Officials at the record label, Sony, were listening and liked what they heard.
“They treat me nice,” Sánchez said.
“He’s really ascending to the upper tier,” said Smith, who accompanied Sánchez to Las Vegas for the Latin Grammy award ceremony. Sánchez is just one of several Co-op graduates Smith has seen become successful playing music. “A lot of students end up going to Berklee,” a music conservatory in Boston, Smith said. “Last year they began to refer to us as Berklee South.” Another student has become a professor of saxophone in Brazil.
“We’ve got several dozen students who are making good livings in the music industry — better than mine,” Smith said with a laugh.
For his part, Sánchez hasn’t forgotten where he came from. “Marcos has come back to the school a half a dozen times,” Smith said. “He comes in and very often brings local players that he knows from New Haven.” They teach the current Co-op students about improvisation and about pursuing education after high school and getting into the music industry.
“To me it’s an honor for him to hand over his classroom,” Sánchez said. “He knows what he’s doing. He trusts me and he’s seen my path and he knows where I’m headed. It’s always great to give back to the students, to hand down information to the people who are coming behind and try to make their way a little easier.”
With a Grammy under his belt, Sánchez has ambitions to branch out into writing music for film, television and video games. “Those are the future plans within the next five years. That’s what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I like putting a story together without a single lyric. Hopefully I’ll make it someday.”
But meanwhile, he’s also helping musicians who are coming up behind him. “I feel that working with new artists who aren’t known, there’s a lot of space for creativity,” he said. And when he works with them, he finds himself drawing on the lessons he learned at Co-op High.
“In my darkest day,” Sánchez said, Smith “made me feel comfortable.” Sánchez tries to do the same with the artists he works with now. “I really learned that from him and I try to apply that every single day — make everybody feel that they’re on the same playing field.”