Pete Escovedo: Rhythms of Life

In his new memoir, Pete Escovedo reveals the hardship of Santana, the joy of Prince & more

Photo of Pete Escovedo (photo by Julie Gonzalez)

My Life in the Key of E: A Memoir – the new self-released book from famed Latin-jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo – is a case study in sheer determination. Through much of his life, he overcame multiple personal and professional challenges and setbacks: growing up in a dysfunctional home, which eventually led to him and his younger brother, percussionist Coke Escovedo, being placed temporarily at the St. Vincent’s Home for Boys; surviving poverty as a teenager and young adult; mapping out a career as a musician on the bustling Bay Area music scene; getting coolly fired from Santana; witnessing the rise and collapse of the promising Latin-fusion band Azteca and later his nightclubs; and enduring the passings of such lifelong friends as percussion great Willie Bobo, pianist Ed Kelly and, most significant, Coke.

Through it all, Escovedo has proven victorious. Now 82, he’s considered a living legend in the pantheon of Latin percussionists, and he’s the patriarch of a distinguished American musical family that includes his sons, musicians Juan and Peter Michael, and of course his eldest daughter, the percussionist Sheila E., who became a pop-culture icon through her work with Prince. Escovedo spoke with JT about the book, touching upon several significant turning points in his extraordinary life. JOHN MURPH

 JazzTimes: One of the book’s overarching themes is your sense of resilience. At what point did you realize you had staying power as a musician?

That’s always been a tough question for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Even when I started playing music, I had no idea that I would get to this point in my professional life. So it’s always hard to pinpoint when things really started happening.

Talk about how you learned Afro-Cuban rhythms from Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría and Willie Bobo.

I met Tito, Mongo and Willie at such an early age because my brother Coke and I so wanted to learn how to play music, whether it was Latin, funk, jazz or R&B. Coke and I sort of mixed all that stuff up.

But we really needed to learn the correct Afro-Cuban rhythms. So Coke and I made it a point that, whenever Tito and Mongo’s bands came to Oakland, we’d go hear them play because nobody was really teaching Afro-Cuban music then. The only way we were going to learn that stuff was to go and watch. We watched; we listened; we recorded it in our brains, in terms of how those rhythms should be played correctly. Later on, we were there with them asking questions.

Discuss your relationship with Ed Kelly, who convinced you to switch from saxophone to percussion.

That was a big change in my life because I don’t know how far I would have gone playing the saxophone. I was a slow learner. I couldn’t really grasp that instrument fast enough. I still have my alto saxophone, with a lot of cobwebs on it. [laughs] I pull it out sometimes. Then my wife [Juanita] starts shouting at me to keep quiet. [laughs]

Ed and I were in high school together. He was also a really great football player. I tried out for the team, but I was so small that there was no way I could have played football. But we became friends. Then he told me he played piano and was putting a little jazz group together to play at after-school functions. I was still fooling around with the saxophone. I thought maybe I could learn from joining these guys, that it might entice me to study the saxophone more.

When I approached him, he told me that he had already hired a sax player, but he was looking for someone to play Latin percussion. He was listening to a lot of Bud Powell at that time. So I said, “Yeah, man. I can do that. I would love to.” I had a makeshift bongo set, made out of a couple of coffee cans, and I only had one actual conga. But I joined the group. Ed was such a dear friend and such a great musician. Even in high school he was playing his butt off. He was destined to become a great pianist. We had a long, dear friendship. We were like brothers. It was a huge loss for me personally when he passed away [in 2005].

Talk about the nature of Azteca, the group you co-led with your younger brother, Coke. In both of its editions it had a lot of heavyweight talent, including Paul Jackson, Lenny White, Mel Martin, Tom Harrell and Eddie Henderson.

It’s such a shame that that band could not stay together. Everybody in that band contributed so much to the music. Everyone would bring in charts; everyone had ideas. That in a sense was what Coke wanted. He didn’t want it so that it was just him as the bandleader. He wanted it to be a co-op band. We even had a little board of directors that would govern the orchestra; we had meetings to talk over certain things. Azteca was basically his idea.

You also write about the emotional toll of constantly touring with Santana when you wanted to spend time with your family.

That was a really difficult time, because I didn’t know how intense and long those tours would be. Santana traveled constantly; the band members were hardly ever home. That kind of schedule started to eventually get to me, because my kids were younger and I would start missing them and my wife.

At one point, when we were in Germany, my wife got sick and had to go to the hospital. I felt so bad because I wasn’t there. Then I would miss holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas. I missed some of my kids’ graduations. All of that stuff started to really get to me.

Speaking of the exhaustion of touring, how did you prepare Sheila for life on the road? Even before Prince she toured with George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie.

I warned her. [laughs] But she had been around the corner a few times with me. She learned how to handle herself on the road. I remember when she went on the road with George Duke; he told me, “I will watch over her like an uncle. I will make sure that she won’t get involved with the wrong people.” I was a little worried for her. But my wife reminded me that Sheila knew how to take care of herself and knew what to do and what not to do.

Because of Sheila’s close friendship with Prince, which began in the late ’70s, he was a frequent visitor to your house. Share some of your fondest memories of watching Prince blossom as a musician.

When we first met, he had come to one of the Santana band rehearsals. Tom Coster was the keyboard player. Tom is the one who brought him in, because Prince was taking keyboard lessons from him. At first Prince seemed like a lost soul, because of the way he was dressed. He always wore those really big overcoats. If you looked at him then, you’d swear he was homeless.

But Prince and I hit it off right away. I’d invite him over to the house. He met Sheila. We always had the piano set up in the house, and he and Sheila would jam together. I just noticed right away that he was going to be something special. It was a lot of fun being around Prince.