Pete Escovedo, along with such seasoned bandleaders as Eddie Palmieri, Poncho Sanchez and Ray Barretto, is today viewed as one of the standard bearers of Latin jazz. “There are so many great young players who are carrying on the tradition,” he says happily. “My job, as I see it, is to keep on doing what Tito, Mongo, Cal, Willie and others would be doing if they were still with us today. At the same time, we need to experiment and expand the genre.” The younger guys will see to that. But for Escovedo right now things couldn’t be better. “The audience is there, and it’s worldwide,” he enthuses.
A California native, Escovedo was raised in Oakland. His father was an amateur singer and guitarist who passed along a love of Latin music, while young Pete discovered and cultivated a love of jazz largely on his own. Early on, he embraced the Latin jazz style, steadily building a reputation in the Bay Area as part of the Escovedo Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet.
Together, Pete and Coke (who passed away a number of years ago) became the most in-demand rhythm section in Northern California. “Eventually we thought maybe it’s time to put our own band together,” Pete says. The Escovedo Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet grew into one of the most popular Latin jazz combos in California. The addition of Pete’s younger brother Phil Escovedo on bass cemented the family band, until the late ’60s when guitarist Carlos Santana hired Coke and Pete for his hugely popular group. “That was our entry into the Latin rock scene,” says Pete. Pete toured with Santana for three years, performing internationally and playing on three Santana albums: Moonflower, Oneness and Inner Secrets. Eventually, though, Pete and Coke felt the need to branch out on their own again and in 1970 they founded the band Azteca, a cooperative 14-piece Latin big band. Azteca recorded two albums for Columbia, an eponymous debut and Pyramid of the Moon. “Those were the days of Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago, the big band sound,” Pete says, “and we wanted to have that same kind of thing.”
Today, Escovedo leads what is widely considered one of the finest ensembles in Latin jazz, a mix of musicians from both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Since moving to L.A. two years ago, he is working more with daughter Sheila E. “When we perform in Southern California, I always check to see if she wants the gig,” Pete says. “Although with my group, she works for scale!” For Live!, which was recorded in San Diego during the summer of 2002, Escovedo’s sons, percussionist son Juan and brother Peter Michael, joined the ensemble of talented Latin jazz musicians on-stage to make this a truly swinging family affair. The end result is a joyous concoction of Latin rhythms with elements of jazz, R&B and funk that is hard to resist. Latin jazz fan around the world will rejoice.
We’re chatting with Pete Escovedo about his days on the road with Carlos Santana when the phone rings. It’s one of the busiest studio musicians in Los Angeles on the line, but this time, the call isn’t about the music business—it’s about family business. “Hey girl,” Escovedo says happily, responding to the familiar voice of his daughter, famed drummer Sheila E. On the spur of the moment, she’s called to ask if he’d like to accompany her to a Hollywood social event the next night. Since moving to L.A. three years ago from his longtime home in Oakland, “Pops,” as Sheila affectionately calls the 78-year-old master timbale player and Latin band leader, has been spending a lot of time with his glamorous celebrity offspring.
And the relationship, a casual mixture of personal and professional associations, is a two-way street. “When I get an engagement for my group, I always check to see if she wants to come and play,” he says. Fortunately, for both papa and his fans, she’s often available. It’s not the big money she got when working with pop vocalist Prince (The Artist Formerly Known As), but it’s an opportunity to maintain close family ties and play the kind of music she grew up with but doesn’t often get to perform any more, rhythmically kicking Afro-Cuban style Latin jazz. “She gets the craving sometimes, so if she really wants to play, I leave the door open,” he adds. “She’s my first-call drummer.”
If Sheila’s not available, the job goes to son Peter Michael, who has himself become a hot commodity in L.A.’s fiercely competitive music scene and is often called upon for world tours with big name pop music acts. The one Escovedo child who is always at Pete’s side is his son Juan, a highly regarded conguero who is the only family member who hasn’t settled in L.A. —he remains in the Bay Area, where his fame as an exceptional Latin percussionist continues to grow. Rounding out the E clan’s line-up of music talent are Pete’s wife Juanita and daughter Zina, who often get to express their talents as background vocalists on the senior Escovedo’s albums.
“I’ve been doing different kinds of things since leaving northern California,” says Pete of his transition to a different lifestyle in Los Angeles. “When I was in the Bay Area, I had a strong fan base and we did a lot of things,” he recalls. One of them was operating the area’s best Latin music nightclub, Mr. E’s. But the past is more relaxed in L.A., and the opportunities, while not as numerous, are in some ways more promising. “The engagements Sheila and Michael get are different, because they are awards shows, big corporate dinners and the Hollywood scene.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is his recording schedule. In the past decade, Escovedo has become increasingly viewed as one of the ranking elder statesmen of the Latin jazz movement. With the passing in the last several years of such giants of the music as Tito Puente, Chico O’Farrill and Mongo Santamaría, his stature has grown and the demand for recordings under his name has increased. His latest, which features Sheila, Peter Michael and Juan and longtime musician associates from San Francisco and L.A., is “Live!” for Concord Picante, the L.A.-based label that once recorded Puente and Santamaría and now boasts a talent line-up that includes Poncho Sánchez and Eddie Palmieri, two other Latin jazz standard bearers. “Well, I guess I’ve proven that I’ve lasted,” he jokes. “My job, as I see it, is to try to hold the tradition of Latin jazz music in the fold—to keep doing what Tito, Mongo, Willie, Bobo and others did years ago.
“And,” he adds, likely thinking of his kids, “there are also a lot of great young players coming up today who will carry on the tradition and take some chances and improve the style.”
Escovedo can take a lot of credit for keeping alive the style of music he loves and playing an important role in its evolution from the almost exclusively Cuban-rooted form that predominated four decades ago to the much more stylistically eclectic variety he and others perform today.
Born in 1935 in Pittsburg, California, a small port town at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquín rivers, Escovedo was raised in Oakland. He remembers his father as a frustrated singer and guitarist who spent a lot of time hanging out with local musicians. Often, Pete and his brother Coke would tag along, and they slowly developed a love for the music that had hooked their father. Gradually, their interest shifted to jazz and Cuban music. When such greats as Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Patato Valdez came to town, they were in the front row, soaking up the sounds that would become their life-long passion. Eventually, they formed the Escovedo Brothers Latin Jazz Sextet and became renowned as one of the Bay Area’s best Latin groups.
It didn’t take long for Santana to recognize their talent and came calling. Pete and Coke toured with the emerging Latin rock star for several years and appeared on a number of his landmark albums, but the urge to put together another group of their own and establish their own identity remained strong. “It was a fun time and a very creative time,” Pete recalls. “Carlos proved that combining rock and Latin could take the music in another direction. His success allowed people like us to incorporate jazz and soul music and other styles into Latin music.”
The result was Azteca, a fabled band known for a brazen blend of R&B, funk, rock and Brazilian and Latin ingredients, and it likely could only have evolved in San Francisco. Pete and Coke, who passed away a number of years ago, handpicked a group of young musicians to form the band they wanted. In keeping with the “Flower Power” spirit of the times, it was a truly cooperative endeavor. “It was a very close knit, like a family,” he recalls of the group, which lasted a couple of years and produced just two albums. “We were all close friends—we voted on songs. Unfortunately, the music and the musicianship of the band were so great it was a little ahead of its time. We were just scratching the surface of where the band could have gone.”
Fortunately, the Escovedo children were old enough at the time to be inspired by their father and uncle’s bold experiment. The thoroughly contemporary Azteca formula became a cornerstone in their artistic development, and a bit of Azteca lives on in every Escovedo performance. “Live!” resonates with that infectious, multi-cultural Azteca spirit on a bounty of tracks from the group’s glory days in the early 1970s. One song, “Sunrise,” which was to have been released on the band’s third album, has languished unheard all these years. “We were actually in the studio recording when we learned that the record company had dropped us,” he laughs today.
“We really don’t have to prove anything,” Pete says of the Latin music scene he and his talented children have become a big part of. “We just go out and do what we do. The music is much more accepted today than it was before. And working with my kids? Well, they make the old man work a little harder, but today, it’s more fun.”