Latin Jazz Conversations: Pete Escovedo (Part 1)

by chip on July 13, 2010

When a musician looks back upon their lifetime, their accomplishments leave an impact upon their musical community and the depth of this impact defines their legacy. Individuals destined to leave a major footprint upon the musical world generally start early, dedicating all their spare time to the pursuit of musical growth. These individuals spend all their time listening, talking about music, practicing, and playing with other musicians. Their agenda is only served by their passion; they simply have a desire to be close to music in every aspect of their life. It’s almost like there’s an urgency to their explorations, an inner drive to find new and satisfying musical experiences. Simply as a result of their honest dedication to music, these individuals start creating songs, bands, and techniques that change the landscape of the musical world. Since changing the musical playing field never was a goal, they simply continue their search for more musical opportunities. With the passion for music guiding them, the list of accomplishments grows longer and their impact becomes huge.

Percussionist Pete Escovedo reaches his 75th birthday today, celebrating a long list of accomplishments all inspired by a genuine love for music that sent him diving headfirst into performance.  Born on July 13, 1935, Escovedo was raised in Pittsburg, California, one of seven children.  Escovedo’s father instilled a deep respect for music in all his children, exposing them to the great Latin big bands of the day.  After dabbling with the saxophone during high school, Escovedo settled upon percussion and got early experience working in a jazz combo with pianist Ed Kelly.  The San Francisco Bay Area’s Latin music scene was booming during the fifties, and the area housed a large community of knowledgeable musicians. Escovedo and his younger brother Coke learned from a number of influential percussionists in the area and worked with pianist Carlos Frederico at the California Hotel. Along with their brother Phil, a bassist, the young musicians formed their own groups to make their way through the scene – a large dance band and a smaller Latin Jazz sextet. The newly formed groups brought together some of the area’s best musicians, as The Escovedo Brothers Band found work across the thriving collection of clubs in the Bay Area. Escovedo and his brothers tirelessly followed their love for music, building solid skills and establishing their reputation that would lead through a wide array of musical experiences.

Escovedo would move onto become a central figure in Latin Rock, fusion, and Latin Jazz, becoming known around the world for his high energy percussion work and top-notch bands. His work as a sideman with Carlos Santana, his leadership of the big band Azteca, his walk through fusion with Billy Cobham, and his role as a front man in the Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra caught the attention of the world and left a serious impact across several musical worlds. We’ll be celebrating Escovedo’s 75th birthday this week with an in-depth interview that chronicles his long career. In the first piece of our interview, we discuss his early exposure to music, his initial performances as a percussionist, his work in the Bay Area during the fifties, the formation of The Escovedo Brothers, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You were born in Pittsburg, California into a large and musical family. How was music a part of your life at a young age?

PETE ESCOVEDO: We grew up in a very musical household, because all of us used to really hang out with my dad. He wanted to be a singer in big bands, so whenever the big bands would come to town, he would always go. Back in the old days of Oakland, there was Sweet’s Ballroom, the Ali Baba Ballroom, and the Sands Ballroom. My dad would always go there, talk to musicians, and see if he could go up and sing a couple of songs. Generally, he used to take us with him, so we all kind of grew up in that environment. He would have the bands come over to our house after they performed, have a party, have fun, play the guitars, and sing. So we grew up in that whole kind of music atmosphere.

LJC: Those bands that you are talking about seeing at that age, are those the Latin big bands or was that all different types of music?

PE: Yea, it was different types of music, but he mainly liked the real big bands that would come from Mexico and different countries. In those days, the ballrooms used to feature a thing that would be called the Sunday tardeadas. It was an afternoon dance thing where parents were allowed to even bring their kids. So everybody was allowed in those days. My Dad always made it a point to meet the guys in the band; he just really loved music so much. Every time they would come to town, he would make sure that they would come over to the house for drinks and food and just carry on into the early morning.

LJC: Do you remember anyone specific that you might have met at that age?

PE: I really didn’t remember the names of the bands and who they were. We were all so young. As we got older, we found out about Perez Prado and those kinds of big bands that were from Mexico. We started going to the ballrooms when we were getting older, just to hear a lot of those big bands play. There was so much of it in those days in Oakland, which was really fun. They had the ballrooms then and those places were great . . . now you can’t even find a ballroom. In those days, it was very popular.

LJC: Was your first instrument the bongo?

PE: Actually my first instrument that I took up when I got to high school was the saxophone. I met some people from back East and I just really wanted to be a jazz musician after that. I started thinking that I would play saxophone, be a jazz musician, and it would be the greatest thing. The only problem was that I wasn’t a very good player at the saxophone! So as I was trying to learn that instrument, I kind of dibbled and dabbled with percussion. One of the guys in high school was putting a little group together – he was a great player, his name was Ed Kelly. He was putting this little group together to play gigs and stuff. I wanted to play, so I said, “Man, can I join the band?” He said, “Well, we have a sax player, but it would be nice to have percussion – some bongos, congas, and stuff like that.” I said, “Well yea, I can do that.” I joined the band, playing that with this new Latin Jazz group that we had.

We were very fortunate in those days; they had a program at our high school that would allow the high school group to open for a main act in a nightclub in San Francisco. There was a place called the Downbeat Club on Market Street in San Francisco where a lot of big jazz players would come. So we got a chance to open the show for The Count Basie Orchestra. That was it – that was what turned my whole head around. I said, “You know what? This is so much fun!” We didn’t get any money, but that was beside the point. We got to play, I got to know about that atmosphere, in the nightclub, and the jazz players. It was incredible. Just the whole vibe of it – for me, that was it. I said, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

LJC: From there, you stayed on percussion, was there somebody around there that helped you out – how did you build your skills?

PE: I was very fortunate, because at a young age, I got a chance to meet the great players. After I got out of school and I was about 17 or 18, I met Tito Puente. Then I became friends with Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader, and of course, all the other guys. Me and brother Coke, we just so wanted to play. He was also playing percussion. We were just going out anytime. Any opportunity that we got to go and listen to any of those bands, we went. We made it a point just like my Dad did, to meet the musicians and hang out. We did the same thing – we’d invite them over to our house. The band would come over for dinner and drinks, and talk about music. That was our school. We were just wide-eyed open about asking questions. “How do you do this? How do you play this? What kind of rhythm is that? What do you call that?” Just asking questions and all that, it was our schooling on how to play.

LJC: How did that transition into you playing gigs and working professionally?

PE: As soon as I got out of high school, I was very lucky to get a job with Carlos Frederico, a piano player from Panama who had his own little quintet that played at the California Hotel in Oakland. One of the musicians was leaving to go to Vegas to play with Perez Prado, so I asked if I could audition. He said, “Yea.” Little did he know that I had been going there every week and I knew every song he played. So when the audition came, he called out a song, and I played every break. I knew how to start it, how it ended, and the whole thing. He was just amazed. He said, “Hey, man, that’s pretty good. Can you start Sunday?” I said, “Yea!” He goes, “Are you in the union?” I said, “What’s the union?” He said, “Well, you’ve got to join the union before you become a professional musician.” I said, “I didn’t know that.” He said, “Do you have a black suit?” I said, “No, but I can go buy one.” So right away, I joined the union, got a black suit and a red tie, and I joined the band.

When things came to pass after a while, one of the other guys was leaving the band. So I told Carlos about my younger brother Coke. I said, “Man, my brother Coke plays better than I do. He could take over the timbales and I’ll switch over to congas. Then the band could really be good – he knows all the songs too!” So my brother joined the band. After that, we started working with a lot of different bands in town. It seemed like they always hired us together. We were kind of like a duo; they would just hire us all the time.

Eventually we just decided to start our own little group, which was called The Escovedo Brothers. My other brother Phil played bass and he joined the band. The three of us had a small group that would play the jazz clubs and we had a larger band also that would do the dance halls. So we were around the Bay Area for many, many years playing a lot of gigs. We opened a lot of places and we actually closed a lot of places. Everybody knew us; everybody knew about the Escovedo Brothers. We were kind of the only guys doing that stuff. Little by little, we started getting more into jazz and wanted to do more Latin Jazz than just dance music. But we were fortunate, we played all the clubs – the Matador, Basin Street West, The Jazz Workshop, and all the clubs in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area.

LJC: You mentioned Carlos Frederico, are there any other names of people or bands that were really active on the Bay Area Latin music scene in the fifties?

PE: Armando Peraza was playing with George Shearing; he ended up staying in the Bay Area, living in San Francisco. We became friends with him. Then of course, there was Mongo (Santamaria) and Willie Bobo. When they left Tito (Puente), they joined Cal Tjader’s band; so they lived in San Francisco. We would see those guys all the time also. There were a lot of guys that were around – Benny Velarde, Chico Ochoa, and the Duran Brothers – Manny Duran and Carlos Duran. We got a chance to work with all of them, it was great fun. Then when the Latin Rock scene came about, of course there was Carlos Santana. We were very fortunate to join his band and spend four years in that band – that was great fun also.

LJC: When you put together The Escovedo Brothers Band in the sixties, aside from you, Coke, and Phil, who was a part of that and what kind of repertoire were you playing?

PE: We actually had a small group that we worked with. We used different piano players – we had a guy named Don Jordan who came from back East. He was a very good player. We only used two horns in those days – we had Mel Martin on saxophone and we had Al Bent on trombone. When we used a larger band, we had four trumpets; we would go through different trumpet players. That’s when we did the Latin dance thing and we always had Carlos Frederico on the piano. We used another percussion player, Willie Colon. But the band would change now and then. We used different people all the time. In those days, everybody was trying to make a living playing. We tried to get the best guys, as much as we could.

Then after the stint with Santana, me and my brother Coke got together and decided, “Why don’t we start our own band again?” He wanted to get a large band, and we ended up with the band Azteca. We got a bunch of our friends; there were some really good players in that band. It’s just unfortunate that Azteca didn’t do more than we should have done, because it was such a great band. I think the music still holds up today, it was really something special.

Check out Part Two of our interview with Pete Escovedo and take a look at his dips into Latin Rock and jazz fusion. We discuss Escovedo’s time with Santana, the formation of Azteca, his fusion recordings with drummer Billy Cobham, his collaborations with his daughter Sheila, and more. You can find it HERE.

You’ve got to read Part Three of our interview with Pete Escovedo where we bring everything up to date. We look at the formation of Escovedo’s Latin Jazz Orchestra, some of the musicians that played in his band, the Azteca reunion, the Bay Area Latin Jazz sound, and more. You can read it HERE.

Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Conversations: John Calloway (Part 2)
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Pete Escovedo
Bring On The Boogaloo: Three Funky Latin Jazz Classics From The Sixties
Five Straight-Ahead Latin Jazz Classics Featuring Willie Bobo

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