The Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra is one of the world's top Latin Jazz aggregations. At 82 years of age, Pete Escovedo is still going strong, regularly performing shows featuring his masterful timbale pyrotechnics, backed by one of the tightest orchestras in Latin Jazz.
In a music career spanning over 60 years, Escovedo has accumulated a wealth of performing credits, including working with Carlos Santana, Tito Puente, Herbie Hancock, Mongo Santamaria, Bobby McFerrin, Cal Tjader, Woody Herman, Stephen Stills, Billy Cobham, Anita Baker, George Duke, Boz Scaggs, Andy Narell, Al Jarreau, Ray Obiedo, Dionne Warwick, Marlena Shaw, Barry White, Angela Bofill, Arturo Sandoval, Poncho Sanchez, Chick Corea, Dave Valentine, Najee, Gerald Albright, and Prince.
After dabbling in playing the saxophone at age 16 while in high school in Oakland, Pete soon realized that saxophone was not his calling, and he switched to bongos, making his first set out of coffee cans and tape, and even painting it himself.
In 1960, the Escovedo Brothers Latin Jazz band was formed by Pete and his brothers, Coke and Phil Escovedo. The band performed regularly in the San Francisco Bay Area until 1970, when Pete and Coke formed the band Azteca, got a recording deal with Columbia Records, and toured across the U.S. Opening shows for Stevie Wonder and The Temptations.
In 1972, Pete received a call from Carlos Santana to join the Santana Band, which had already employed his brother Coke a few months earlier. Pete and Coke toured extensively with the band and performed on the classic Santana albums “Moonflower,” “Oneness,” and “Inner Secrets.”
In 1978, Pete and his daughter Sheila E recorded two influential Latin Jazz albums on Fantasy records, “Solo Two” and “Happy Together,” both produced by Billy Cobham. Pete has gone on to record seven acclaimed albums as a solo artist on Concord Records, including “Yesterday’s Memories, Tomorrow’s Dreams - Live in Concert” (1987), “Mister E” (1988), “Flying South” (1996), “E Street” (1997), “E Music” (2000), “Pete Escovedo Live” (2003), and “Live From Stern Grove” (2012).
I spoke with Pete Escovedo recently about Latin Jazz, modern music, the clave, and the psychedelic San Francisco music scene in the late 60's.
(The following is part two of a two-part interview with Pete Escovedo. Part one was featured in the January, 2018 "Ritmo Caliente.")
Mark Towns: How do you define Latin Jazz?
Pete Escovedo: I have followed it for many years. I’ve played in a lot of different bands in a lot of situations -- backed up a lot of different people and artists. Latin Jazz is the most rewarding for me. Of all the music I've played, the different styles, the most interesting is Latin Jazz, because combining Jazz with Latin is one of the greatest marriages to ever happen, and it seems to have lasted a long time. To combine those two (Latin & Jazz) is really something very rare and different, and there are so many guys that do it so well. Of course, Tito (Puente) did, and Ray Barretto to the extreme, and (Jerry Gonzalez's) Fort Apache Band. Cal Tjader did it by mixing a lot of standard Jazz tunes and playing them with a Latin beat – probably one of the first guys that did that. And so many artists -- Eddie Palmieri, when he dropped the Salsa band and started playing his small group, really went into more Jazz than the Latin side of it. It’s a great combination. I still find it so rewarding, and still a kind of music that has no boundaries. There’s so much still to do with it -- taking it to different places in different forms, different rhythms. There’s still so much to be done with it, but the great thing about it is that is people like us that play especially too, how you can combine those elements within it, you know, you can mix it with anything. Sometimes I will take an R&B song and, this is kind of what I'm doing now. I’m working on a new CD and basically I’ve gone back to some of the old jams that people know, songs that they really know, but I put them into Latin Jazz. And it’s really interesting doing this, because I’ve been in the studio working on songs, and I’m always so surprised that you take a Stevie Wonder song and make it Latin Jazz. It’s really so rewarding to do that.
L.A. Jazz Scene: How do you balance tradition with innovation in your playing?
Escovedo: For me, I wasn't a really traditional guy, because I’m Mexican, and I wasn't brought up like most Puerto Rican and Cuban musicians, where the rule of all rules is the clave beat. And even though that is true, I still take it beyond that, where there will be forward clave or backward clave or whatever. I kind of not rely on that in order to make the arrangement and the composition interesting enough to play, and enough for people to enjoy it. So, for me, although there are some things I have done traditionally, and some songs that I have played very traditionally, at the same time, I still want to take it even further by mixing R&B stuff, Jazz stuff - like that. Kind of take it in that direction, because I’m not one of those die-hard Salsa, you know, I’m not that. There can be songs that I do that have the Salsa style, but at the same time, its way more Latin Jazz than just danceable music.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Do you think there is an inverse relationship between musical complexity and music popularity?
Escovedo: Yeah, and it’s so difficult for us because – I don’t know who told me this one time, but I remember someone told me, “Don’t chase the audience. Let the audience chase you.” So, we have to kind of just stay true to what we do, and do what we know how to do. Everybody has an niche - a place where they belong in the music business. Like Duke Ellington said, “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.” So, if the music is good, it doesn't matter what style or how different it is as long as it’s good. And so, I don’t necessarily really want to think about, “Well, I need to do something so commercial that it gets a lot of airplay.” In a sense, I have to think a little about that because we’re artists who want to sell CDs and want to get year to year work – to have people buy this stuff and get played on the radio. But, at the same time, you still want to make it interesting. It’s just like what Carlos (Santana) did when he did his famous album that won five or six Grammys (“Supernatural,” released in 1999). But he really went back to the street kind of music, and had different writers, and sometimes you need to do that. Even though, to me, some of his best work was “Caravanserai,” “Welcome,” “Lotus” - all his great, great albums, great music that he played, and stuff he did with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. Those are very, very interesting -- great music. But, unfortunately, those albums and CDs never really sold, until he got back into doing the street music. I always say we’re the guys that are still playing the underground music. We feed ourselves with what we play. We love what we do. We enjoy what we do, and we’re die-hard Latin Jazz people. This is all we know how to do, and this is what we want to do. And whether it'll be great or successful will manage to be the biggest question of all. How far do we get with it, you know? But I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been able to make a living and still do what I do. And even though every year, it becomes more and more of a struggle because of what the music business is today. Music now is, I don’t know. I don’t know what people are listening to anymore. You probably go through the same things. You do your Latin Jazz thing and luckily people still love it and want to hear it. They’re there, and and you have an audience, and it's great. Or you've got to sell a million or two million CD’s. I don't know. Laughs
L.A. Jazz Scene: You hit the nail on the head when you said, “This is what we do and what we’re born to do, and we do it.” Hopefully the audience will chase us. Do you think Latin Jazz could ever reach a larger audience and, if so, what would it take?
Escovedo: I think it can because, to me, it really depends on the audience. It depends on what people are listening to. And, for some strange reason, they love to hear Latin Jazz. There’s still an audience for it. I’ve gone to hear different bands, and the places are packed. And when I play, I’ve been very lucky that it’s a full house. The audience is great, they listen, they applaud, they applaud the solo players, they have a good time. They leave saying, “Wow! I’ve never heard your band before but I really enjoyed it. It was really good.” I think if we can get more places to play - and that's probably going to be one of the hardest things because, how many Jazz clubs are left in the world? Not too many. They seem to be falling by the wayside, and those are the places we have to play. We play those kinds of rooms, and that's where the audience goes...and festivals. But even so-called Latin, or so-called Jazz festivals aren’t even really Jazz anymore. You’re going to find R&B artists on them. It’s kind of a rough thing. Look at what happens at the Playboy Jazz festival. When they do have Latin jazz, the audience is there. They love it. They love hearing it, you know? And now, they have to mix all these different kinds of music together. They call it a Jazz festival but there’s very little Jazz. Crazy.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Some Jazz festivals are including Rap now, too.
Escovedo: Yeah, yeah. And I’m not one to knock that, you know. The Rap artists, God bless them. They’re making money, they’re successful. But it’s not, to me – it’s just not music. It’s not music. It’s a style that has become popular, and now you've got Grammy awards that feature Rap. It’s all gotten so political. I’ve kind of lost interest in all this stuff, but we just keep chugging along. We’re die-hard guys. We just keep doing what we do.
L.A. Jazz Scene: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in music who wants to learn to play Latin Jazz?
Escovedo: I think the most important thing is really get the schooling. That's the biggest mistake I ever made in my life – not getting schooled professionally. Because, I would love to have learned how to arrange and write music and stuff, and I never did. Everything I've done has been by ear and by street knowledge of learning the music business and stuff. But if you love this kind of music, and this is what you’re called for, by all means go for it, man, and go for it full-heartedly. Don’t look back on the setbacks, because there are going to be a lot of setbacks. It’s just something that - you jump over one hurdle there’s going to be another hurdle, another two or three other hurdles you've gotta jump over. Like climbing up the ladder one step at a time, you'll hopefully eventually reach the top. There are many people, including a lot of the greatest artists out there, who've been through the same thing. We've all been through the same thing, and they’re up there because they deserve it with the music they play, and that they stayed by their calling. You know, it’s their calling to do what they do, and all the power to them. Bless all those guys.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Do you think Jazz artists have a responsibility to entertain, or should the music speak for itself?
Escovedo: The music will always speak for itself, but at the same time you have to have some kind of ego/personality or some kind of way to entertain the audience, because it takes a little more than just the music. I found that out in these last few years of playing, that if you sort of create more of a show, then the audience will accept you a lot better. And I’ve noticed that a lot of artists are doing that. Even the Jazz people, because they'll spend time talking to the audience. Before, years ago, when you'd go hear Jazz and hear people play that style of music, they would just get up there and play. I remember going to see Miles Davis when I was young, and he didn't even face the audience. He always put his back to the audience and played the other way around. But that was Miles, and that was his personality, and people actually went there just to see that. So yeah, you get now where it’s so much more entertainment than ever. Look at the artists that are doing these shows in Vegas and all the big large venues. You could be a singer that doesn't sing good, but if you've got women that are half naked and dancing on a big production stage and all the stuff that goes with it, then it’s a big show. You take somebody like Pitbull who, personally, I don’t know how he’s been so popular. But, the guy, he’s got all these dancers and everything up there and he raps. I never even know what the heck he’s saying, but he’s got a big show and gets big money for doing that kind of a show. I don’t think it’s musical, but it works for him.
L.A. Jazz Scene: How important is the clave in Latin music?
Escovedo: I think, as a rule, that’s what you have to start out with. It’s something that, if you base your writing and arranging on that clave beat, that’s going to help you tremendously to get to the next part. If you start out thinking that way, it’s great. Once you learn that, I think it enables you to learn the rest. You can learn the rest, because there’s actually a basic in every style of music and every form of instrument. To play Latin music, the clave, of course, is that important tool that you need to know about. Especially if you’re playing a rhythm instrument - timbales, bongos, congas, drums – you’ve gotta have knowledge of that. You've gotta have that knowledge. But then, if you’re an R&B artist, or a Pop artist, or a Rock artist, you don’t need to know the clave at all, because it’s non-existent. So yeah, if you’re going to play Latin music, you better learn the clave first.
L.A. Jazz Scene: I’ve always found it interesting that a lot of Pop songs going way back are actually in clave, when you think about it, by accident.
Escovedo: And you could take - it’s funny because when you talk about playing a Güajira or a Son Montuno, you’re playing the Blues. That’s the Blues, you know what I mean? So, it has that foundation. And a lot of the rhythms that are being incorporated into Latin Jazz - all of that stuff is African. So, there are all of these mixtures that come into play when you do Latin Jazz, and that’s the thrill of it. You get to use all of that, and that’s what’s so cool about it. It has no boundaries.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Is there an artist, genre, or composer who inspires you to create new music?
Escovedo: I like so many different artists. I really like Brazilian music too, so Ivan Lins - I really love his writing. Milton Nascimento - I love his writing. I’ve always loved the string instruments. A lot of the artists, Clare Fischer, you know those guys. Of course, Eddie, I mean Eddie’s arrangements, Eddie Palmieri’s stuff is timeless. I have all the LP’s -- the first, second, and third albums of La Perfecta. And sometimes when I go see him play and he does those old charts, they’re still great. They’re still happening. That’s a great arranger, that’s a great writer--to keep that kind of interest still happening after all those years is amazing.
L.A. Jazz Scene: As a musician in San Francisco in the late 1960's, did the Psychedelic movement that flourished there then affect the music on the Latin scene?
Escovedo: Yeah. That was the scene back then. We played at Bill Graham’s at the Fillmore and stuff. He had those psychedelic big screens going on while you’re playing, and everybody is on acid, freaking out. Those were crazy times. Back then, basically what brought it around, of course, was Carlos (Santana). The Latin Rock scene was really, really big in the Bay Area. It brought a lot of Latin musicians out, especially Mexican musicians out. I mean like here in LA you know - El Chicano, Poncho, a lot of bands here - Tierra went kind of Latin Rock. And there's still an audience for that which is kinda cool. These guys, War, those guys are all still working, they’re still packin’ in the clubs and places where they play. The music is still happening. Malo, Sapo – those bands are still active.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Maybe that’s what Latin Jazz needs now - light shows!
Escovedo: laughs True. It might give it another push. .
L.A. Jazz Scene: I appreciate you spending the time doing this interview.
Escovedo: Well, I appreciate you having an interest. One of these days, I’m going to get out there and go listen to you guys (Mark Towns Latin Jazz Band). Everybody tells me how you always put these great guys together, and you guys play some good music. I’m going to have to come out and spend a night and give a listen.