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 his musical background, the Latin Jazz scene in the Bay Area in the late 50's and early 60s, and his experiences with Carlos Santana.
Mark Towns: Where did you first study music?
Pete Escovedo: I actually started playing while I was still in high school, but I never really, professionally, was taught anything about music. I kind of learned just by playing on hand with bands and just, you know, going and listening to all the guys that used to come in from New York. And lucky for me, I made friends with just about all of them. Of course with Tito and Willie Bobo, Mongo, and Ray Barretto - all those guys. I knew all those guys. And me and my brothers - my brother Coke, and my brother Phil and my brother Bobby - we all wanted to be in the music business. So, we used to just hang around with those guys and watch them play and learn from them - ask questions and stuff like that. But as far as professional schooling, I’ve never had that.
L.A. Jazz Scene: This was in San Francisco?
Escovedo: Yeah, this was in the Bay Area - San Francisco.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Was there a certain venue or club where those guys would usually come in and play?
Escovedo: Yeah, there was actually a street in San Francisco - it was in North Beach - where there was a club called The Matador. El Matador. That was one jazz club and right across the street was The Jazz Workshop and right down the block from there was Basin Street West. So all those three clubs had bands coming in – Cal Tjader, Mongo, The Adderly Brothers - you know, all the guys that played jazz. Everybody used to come in to The Jazz Workshop. And we would hang out in those places. There was another place called The Both/And. It was on the other side of San Francisco - the Divisadero side. And they used to have bands come in there and that’s where I first met George Duke. So, you know, the Bay Area was really really a kind of hub for a lot of musicians coming in and out of there, and even ones that lived there. So, quite an experience to be brought up in that area.
L.A. Jazz Scene: When was this? The early 60s?
Escovedo: Yeah, back in the late 50s, early 60s.
L.A. Jazz Scene: What instrument were you playing then?
Escovedo: Well, at first I started out playing congas because that was kind of like the first instrument I took up. And then, gradually, I thought I would take up the saxophone. And I did, but I just couldn't get anywhere with it. I don't know how many lessons I had but it didn't do any good. So I started playing percussion and my friend, who was a bass player, he bought me a set of timbales when I was 16. He brought them over to my house. It was my birthday and he said, “Hey, I brought you a birthday present - a set of timbales and you’re going to learn how to play them.”
L.A. Jazz Scene: What was your friend’s name?
Escovedo: His name was Al Larios. Yeah, he was a dear friend of mine and he passed away already. But, he was a real close friend. He played bass so he’s the one who turned me onto timbales. And, of course, I was listening to Tito and we went to a club called The Macumba in San Francisco which was in Chinatown. Joe Loco played there, Cal Tjader, all the bands, Tito Rodriguez. When Tito Puente came there, I was 18 years old and me and my brothers went there to listen to Tito. That's where we met him. We went backstage and immediately became friends. And this was when Willie Bobo was in the band, and Mongo, and Santos Colon and those guys. So yeah, we made friends. Hooked up with those guys right away and we were always remained friends over the years. Many many years of friendship with all of those guys.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Are there any artists whom you've worked with who stand out as being the most memorable or satisfying?
Escovedo: Yeah, I think there are really so many of them. But, I think the three most, you know, real fond memories - and actually a step in the right direction for me, musically - was my playing with Tito Puente and writing a song together with him. And then of course Billy Cobham, who really taught us - me and my daughter, Sheila - a lot about rhythm and stuff. And then my four years with Carlos Santana - being on the road for four years. That was a great experience. So, doing all those things - there were so many other great musicians, but those three stand out.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Which four years were you with Carlos Santana? This was in the 70’s?
Escovedo: Yeah, I think it was '72 to '76.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Was that during the time he had (saxophonist) Jules Broussard in the band?
Escovedo: Yeah. Well, he was always changing. He was going through different guys. Once the original band disbanded, he actually started putting different members like year after year. He was changing people. But I happened to get in the band because my brother, Coke, was in the band and because Chepito, the regular timbales player, was too ill and stuff to travel. So they took my brother Coke to play with them. And then, Coke brought me in to play congas when Michael Carabello left the band. And then after we toured a lot, we came back home. And then I got a call from Carlos. They were in Germany and he called me and he said, “Chepito is here but I’m going to send him home. Would you be interested in coming out and playing timbales?” And I said, “Yeah, no problem.” Then, I joined the band then and I stayed with the band for four years. Raul Rico was there and Armando Peraza and Greg Walker and those guys, Michael Shrieve. Some of those guys were still in the band.
L.A. Jazz Scene: Wasn’t that around the time he first became “Devadip?” (Carlos Santana temporarily changed his name to Devadip in 1973 after joining the flock of an Indian guru.)
Escovedo: Yeah, I was there through that. That was a crazy time. That was a crazy time because he was - Carlos was in another state of mind. It was interesting. I mean, you know, to me he was still Carlos. He’ll always be Carlos. We’d hang out together and stuff, talk about music. He was really into listening to John Coltrane and Miles. He really adored those guys, and then on the blues side of it, some of the older black blues artists, guitar players and stuff. He’s an interesting guy.
L.A. Jazz Scene: What did Carlos learn from you?
Escovedo: Well, the fact that when Coke was in the band we - this was just before he made the albums that had some of the Latin songs from Tito (“Abraxas” and “Santana 3”). We were in New York and we took Carlos all the way to The Corso which was a place where Tito Puente was playing. All the bands used to play there. And so we took him over there, and he listened to all that stuff and those bands, you know, it’s really cool. So, he ended up incorporating more Latin stuff into his band.