Pete Escovedo: Still Swingin' At 75

Pete Escovedo

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.”

Beginnings

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.”

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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.”