Pete Escovedo: Still Swingin’ At 75

La Familia

Escovedo’s brothers Coke (timbales and percussion) and Phil (bass) were also starting to play semi-professionally and the brothers would haunt the clubs and ballrooms just like their father had done. As soon as they had their own place, they’d invite visiting musicians over to jam and have dinner. “We’d have guys like Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo over and ask them how they played the various rhythms. There were no music schools that taught that stuff. You had to go to concerts and watch the players. We’d cook and they’d teach us what they knew.”

When he got out of high school, Escovedo landed a job with Carlos Frederico, a Panamanian piano player who led the house band at the California Hotel in Oakland. “I saw the band every chance I got, so I knew all the music. When I heard the timbale player was leaving, I asked to audition.” Escovedo auditioned on Thursday and on Friday night was playing in the band. When a spot for another percussionist opened up, he brought in Coke and the Escovedo Brothers became known as a “Deadly Duo.” In addition to their work with Frederico, they freelanced with any band wanting to add a Latin flavor to their sound.

In 1960, Pete, Coke, and Phil started the Escovedo Brothers Band. They’d add horns to play dance music in Oakland’s ballrooms and strip down to a small jazz combo to play clubs. “I worked some day jobs, too. At the cannery in Emeryville and at a Texaco gas station in the days when you had to wear a uniform with a bow tie, but they didn’t last long. I was too busy playing and going to clubs to listen to music and pick up technique from the percussionists.” The Escovedo Brothers Band played the Bay Area for a decade, but never recorded. In 1970, Coke joined Carlos Santana’s band and Shelia E. took over his percussion duties. Coke brought Pete into the Santana band shortly thereafter. That was the end of the Escovedo Brothers Band. Pete and Coke toured with Santana for two years before they left to form Azteca.

A New Direction

“Azteca was Coke’s idea,” Escovedo says. “We knew a lot of bookers and club owners through Santana and thought we could bring some new flavors to the scene.” Azteca took their cue from the fusion experiments of Miles Davis and created music that blended Latin jazz, rock, funk, samba, R&B, and other elements – an eclectic menu even in the Bay Area’s wide-open musical arena. “We had horns, woodwinds, keys, percussion, and three singers, between 15 and 25 pieces. Santana and [drummer] Michael Shrieve were going to play on our debut album.” Unfortunately, Clive Davis, head of Columbia at the time, nixed that idea.

Azteca cut two albums, Azteca in ’72 and Pyramid Of The Moon in ’73, but the logistics of keeping a big band on the road proved to be too difficult. Coke left the band to pursue a solo career as a Latin soul artist. “Shelia was playing with us then and we tried to keep Azteca going. Then we met Billy Cobham. He asked us to play on an album he was cutting for Fantasy.”

Cobham featured Pete and Shelia on Inner Conflicts and Magic, both cut at marathon recording sessions in 1977. Cobham helped them get signed to Fantasy and produced two albums for them – Solo Two (1977) and Happy Together (1978). “Making those albums with Billy was an enlightening experience. He played in shifting time signatures. We were amazed at how the music was put together. He’d come into the studio and say, ‘Let’s go play some rhythms and see where it goes.’ He’d turn on the tape and we’d go from 6/8 to 4/4 to 5/4, just flowing with the groove, then he’d write a song around what we did. A lot of it was improvised.”

Shelia hooked up with George Duke, who she met at the sessions for Cobham’s albums, and went on the road with him. Pete went back to Santana’s band and played with him for four more years, contributing to Moonflower (’77), Oneness (’78) and Inner Secrets (’79). In 1980, he left to go back to his Latin jazz roots with the Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra.

Taking The Lead

“I wanted to do my own thing. We worked the Bay Area club circuit. I started my own label, EsGo, in 1983 and produced and financed our first LP, The Island. We only pressed up about 1,000 copies, so it’s a collector’s item, although I’m thinking about putting it out on CD. I still have all the master tapes.”

The Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra helped forge the unique Bay Area Latin sound and included players like Wayne Wallace, Ray Obiedo, Murray Low, and Rebecca Mauleon, who are still major players today. “The Bay Area Latin sound is recognizable,” Escovedo says, “but hard to define.

“In New York, the guys are mostly Cuban or Puerto Rican, with a lot of players from other Latin American countries. We didn’t grow up in that environment out here. I listen to so many different kinds of music: Santana, Grateful Dead, Tower Of Power, Latin rock, funk, R&B, and that all comes out in what I do today. I can take an Earth Wind & Fire song and treat it like a Latin jazz thing, but it has a different kind of vibe. We have a broader palette of colors out here. [Latin music is] like a stew with a lot of different flavors. There are unlimited choices; you don’t have to stick to one recipe. Bay Area Latin jazz is a marriage of so many different styles, mainly Latin and jazz, but R&B and funk too. And the pot it cooks in is the African element, because that’s where the drumming all started.”

In addition to his duties as a bandleader, Escovedo launched a series of jazz clubs in the ’70s: Escovedo’s in Oakland, Mister E.’s in Berkeley, and Mr. E.’s Spotlight on the Square in Alameda. The Escovedo Orchestra was the house band. Having his own venues allowed Pete to book other like-minded musicians. “I was the booker, publicist, bandleader and MC, but eventually I had to stop playing to attend to the business side of things. Finally, I decided to step away from the clubs. That’s when I moved to L.A.”

Escovedo’s still on the road and although he records infrequently, he’s still involved in producing new music. “I have an Escovedo Family Band project in the can and ready to put out, but I want to do it with a company that will support it. It’s called Love Is All Around. Prince, George Duke, Gloria Estefan, Raphael Saadiq, and Members of Earth Wind & Fire are all on it, along with my kids. Me, Shelia, Michael, and Juan wrote the songs. It was finished a few years ago, but we haven’t found a company that’ll get behind it yet. But I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.”

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