After 50 years, Pete Escovedo has left the Bay Area. His legacy remains.
By Chuy Varela
“Never in my mind did I think I was going to move away from Oakland,” says percussionist-bandleader Pete Escovedo, a few days prior to moving from Alameda to a Southern California suburb called Valley Glen. “My wife Juanita was born here. We went to school and grew up together here, the whole bit. It’s really hard for me to make this move but the fact is that there is nothing really tying us here anymore.”
The Escovedos leaving Oakland is like the Fillmore leaving San Francisco. They’re regional icons that are intimately linked with this little corner of the world, long producing a quality product that, in the case of Pete and his family, is a unique musical hybridization of jazz, Latin, funk, and rock. The Escovedos are heroes to generations who saw them come up as part of a largely immigrant Mexican and Latino community that flourished in West Oakland during the war years.
For the last two years, the one-time side-musician with the Santana band has been running a nightclub, Mr.E’s. He relocated last summer from downtown Berkeley to Spotlight on the Square in Alameda, a spacious, well-designed space with plenty of parking and potential. But the refurbishing of the Posey Tube and Alameda’s relatively remote location didn’t click with the public and Escovedo, who is known lovingly as “pops” by his kids and close friends, sold-off his portion of the club late last year.
“We let that go,” he says. “It was a bad marriage and I had to get divorced. Life has been wonderful life here, but in L.A. we’ll be able to do some different things, hopefully get into some television stuff with the kids. Sheila and Peter Michael are there and eventually my son Juan is going relocate, too.”
The move hasn’t completely deprived the Bay Area of escovedo’s talent–next week, Escovedo will bring his Latin orchestra to the 3rd annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
From their early days in the late 1940s and 1950s, when Oakland dance halls were bursting at the seams, to their climb to national prominence in the early 1970s with their band Azteca, which built on the Latin rock movement spearheaded by the Santana band, the Escovedo brothers (Pete, Coke, and Phil) developed a deep affection for Afro-Cuban music. The music coming out of New York City, innovated by such mambo kings as Machito, Tito Rodriguez, and their biggest influence, Tito Puente, drove the brothers to play.
“Tito was young back then and watching him play was a thrill,” Escovedo says. “He was so on fire! This was just before he made the Dancemania album . It was top notch and he brought out people like Ray Barretto and Santos Colon. To see that as well as the Machito Band, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Loco, and so many others in Oakland was incredible. We just kept filling our ears and the sponge kept soaking it up.”
In the late 1950s, after leaving the Chico Ochoa Orchestra at Sands Ballroom, Escovedo decided to form his own dance band. The Escovedo Brothers Band patterned themselves after Puente but gravitated to the ensemble-size groups of Barretto and Eddie Palmieri. He recruited pianist-arranger Carlos Federico, congero Willie Colon, trombonist Al Bent, and his brothers Coke (timbales) and Phil (bass) and with himself on lead vocals they swung hard, playing throughout the West Coast but primarily in the Bay Area.
“Believe me,” he says, “We played in every club ever built in the area. And we closed a lot of them too. We were kids just trying to sound better. Later on we got more interested in jazz and formed the Escovedo Brothers Latin Sextet with Al Bent and Mel Martin [reeds]. It was a small group and we played at Basin St., El Matador, Jazz Workshop, and Keystone Korner with Todd Barken.”
Pete Escovedo glows talking about those early days. Memories shine forward of a largely Mexican-American post-WWII teen generation that embraced jazz and Afro-Caribbean music. The Escovedos felt the vibe of the West Oakland blues scene and the tremendously hip San Francisco jazz scene. They heard vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s first Latin jazz experiments in the mid-1950s and whenever somebody new came through town they introduced themselves and got taken under the wing of greats like Armando Peraza and Mongo Santamaria.
“I felt very fortunate that an early age I started listening to music. The scene was incredible–Sweet’s Ballroom, Sands, the Ali Baba–great places. The bands would also play the Sunday afternoon tardeadas like the Mambo Sessions with Carlos Federico, Benny Velarde, and Willie Vargas at the California Hotel. The caliber of the music was so high in those days!”
The heyday may not be over there, but settling down with family becomes of greater importance as time passes. “It was my son Peter Michael who convinced me to move,” says Escovedo. “He said: ‘Pops, you’ve had three nightclubs, you’ve played everywhere, you’ve done everything, the only thing you haven’t done is run for mayor and you don’t want to do that ’cause they’ll dog you everyday. The next thing they’ll do is make a statue of you in downtown Oakland and the pigeons will come and doo-doo all over you.
“You don’t want that, so you better move!” he adds with a laugh.
Escovedo is upbeat talking about his move, strategizing about the future. He’s not disbanding his local group and hopes to have two bands: one in the Bay Area and another in L.A. He wants to reopen a nightclub someday, but a bitter taste remains from his last experience. From the countless benefits for a multitude of worthy causes to his presence at every major Latino event in the Bay Area, Pete and his family have been woven into the cultural fabric of the Bay Area.
“I always felt I would accomplish something. It’s not every kid that dreams that has those dreams come true. For me they’ve all come true. I’ve been very blessed. I look back on the life I had here and the people I’ve met over the years–friends, musicians–and it’s been wonderful. Our fans have been so supportive all these years. They come to see us play, buy our CDs, and listen to us. When me and my brothers got started playing we had no idea how it was all going to turn out. The lord blessed us with some talent and we used it to help the community.”
The Healdsburg Jazz Festival presents Latin on the Lawn, Saturday, June 2, at 1pm, outdoors at Rodney Strong Vineyards with the Pete Escovedo Orchestra, and Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band with Larry Willis, Andy Gonzalez, Joe Ford, and Steve Berrios. Tickets are $25. 707/431-7984.
From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.