Jesse J. Sanchez may not look like your typical serious musician. Never has. As a kid in San Jose, he’d walk into a rehearsal room with his trumpet, and the conductor would say something like, “Excuse me, do you need help?” Sanchez would think: I’m the first trumpet player! I’m about to sit here and play all of your concertos for you!
Now a fast-rising 31-year-old theatre music director and supervisor in a field dominated by white men, he knows that people who haven’t seen his photo are startled when he shows up, Mexican-American (fourth generation), wearing jeans and a backwards baseball cap (“Of course, not for performance,” he adds hastily), saying, “Yeah, I’m actually the music director.” (Sometimes he wears a T-shirt that reads, “I’m Mexican. What’s your superpower?”)
Unlike most music directors, Sanchez didn’t take piano lessons in childhood, because his family couldn’t afford it. His education included seeing movie musicals and a high school performance of Evita (“I said, ‘Why am I here?’ But I loved it”), an uncle who plays piano and guitar, great aunts who sang and danced, a grandfather who played in a mariachi church band. He listened to everything, from Nat King Cole to Linda Ronstadt to salsa, to K-Ci and JoJo’s R&B. Asked to choose among three instruments in sixth grade, he picked the trumpet because it was the only one he couldn’t already produce a sound on.
Phoning from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he was recently hired as resident music supervisor (“He’s a smart and versatile artist with a great sense of humor,” emails repertory producer Mica Cole), he discusses various recent projects: music-supervising on a new work, Once Upon a Rhyme, at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts; guest-conducting Evita in the outer Bay Area; serving as music assisant for A Walk on the Moon at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater; co-composing a score with Belgian singer Zap Mama for a new musical/dance piece.
He’s also in the developmental reading stage of AMERICANO: A Latinx Musical, for which he’s writing music and lyrics and a book based on his own family stories. “Part of my reason for wanting to write this is I feel like we should tell stories of other cultures,” he says. Comments Ken Savage, associate producer at A.C.T., by email, “He cares so deeply about uplifting voices and stories of communities of color and is making impressive waves in the national theatre scene…He seizes every opportunity to grow into a more vibrant, relevant, and compassionate musical artist.”
Musical theatre is everything to Sanchez, and in more than one sense: It’s a form that can encompass a rock band, an orchestra, jazz, salsa, solo singers. He talks joyfully of singing in the choir at West Valley College before majoring in music at the University of Idaho (his all-time favorite genres: choral music and salsa), of his first experience as an orchestra musician (Oklahoma! in high school), and of the ultimate game-changer for him, In the Heights, which he’s now music-directed 10 times in regional productions. He also served a music assistant on the first national tour of Hamilton.
While he’s never been told outright, “You can’t be here,” he concedes that his path has been “challenging.” Now he’s happy to be in a position to open up new opportunities for other people of color. “It’s a very interesting time to be a music director,” says Sanchez.
Cue a trumpet flourish.