Pete Escovedo: Still Swingin' At 75
Timbalero Pete Escovedo walked onto the stage at Yoshi’s in Oakland on July 13th flashing a big smile at the crowd’s thunderous ovation. Escovedo was in town celebrating his 75th birthday and he brought a big band along with him, including his superstar daughter, Shelia E., and his sons, Juan and Peter Michael. Most of the men on stage wore tuxedos, but there was nothing formal about the music. The band smoked with all the flavors Escovedo loves: funk on “Do What It Do,” gospel on “Everywhere I Look Love Is All Around,” and salsa, with a salute to his long time pals Tito Puente and Carlos Santana, with “Oye Como Va.”
He was in town only briefly. After demolishing Oakland with nine shows in four days, he was back on the road to play his yearly free concert in San Jose’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez before heading out to headline various West Coast jazz festivals and a benefit for the Dolores Huerta Foundation at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, with Carlos Santana sitting in. At 75, he’s still setting a pace that would be hard for players half his age to match.
“I feel great when I play,” Escovedo says, grinning. He’s sitting at home in Brentwood while grandkids play in the background. “The traveling wears you down a bit as you age, but other than that, I don’t get tired. I always feel energized on stage and having my kids with me is the best part. They keep me aware of what’s going on in contemporary music and their enthusiasm gives me the energy to keep up. They play fast and hard and that’s great. My health is good and I can still do what I’ve always been able to do. I know I’ll eventually come to a place where I can’t play as fast as I used to, but until that day comes, I’ll keep going.”
Escovedo moved to L.A. in 2000 and, although he still has family and many musical ties to the San Francisco Bay Area, he has few regrets about the move. “Shelia and Michael had moved to L.A., so I came down too. We have family [in the Bay Area] and make it back there as much as we can, but you have to make a financial decision sometimes. I can play bigger venues down here like the Greek and the Playboy Jazz Festival, and I’ve been able to write music for TV shows and films.”
Escovedo has been involved with music, especially jazz, ever since he can remember, but he never set out to be a percussionist. “I wanted to play sax and listened to all the greats; Coltrane, Bird, Miles, all the stuff from the bebop era. We didn’t have a lot of money and the school would lend you an instrument if you were in the band, so I picked sax, but I already had started my musical education thanks to my father. He wanted to be a singer, but he got married young and raised a large family – I had six brothers and sisters. My father went to night school and became a plumber and pipe fitter and worked on the ships at the Oakland army base during the war, but music was his passion.
“In those days, there were a lot of ballrooms in Oakland and all the bands from New York, Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico would come to town. They’d have family concerts on Sundays. My dad would take us all to hear them. He’d try to get up on stage and sit in and then he’d invite the band back to our house to jam and eat and drink. Every kid had a bedroom, so we had a large house and the Latin, jazz, and swing bands would hang out with us. It was a great experience and I absorbed a lot of different music.
“(Legendary Bay Area jazz pianist) Ed Kelly went to my high school and he was putting together a jazz combo. He asked if I wanted to play, but he already had a sax player. He’d been listening to George Shearing and Bud Powell and wanted to add percussion to his sound. I told him I would love to do that. I’d been fooling around with timbales, congas, and bongos already. I started on a pair of bongos I made out of tin cans and saved enough money to finally buy real congas and bongos. For my 18th birthday, Al Larios, the bass player in Kelly’s band, got me a set of timbales.”
Although they were still high school students, the Kelly band was good enough to play local clubs. “Things were wide open back then; nobody had to show ID to get into a jazz club. We finally landed a gig at the Downbeat in San Francisco, opening for Count Basie. When I felt the excitement of the crowd that night, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”