Pete Escovedo, who has resurrected his 1970s Latin jazz b…Coke Escovedo (left), Tito Puente (center) and Pete Escov…The Latin jazz band Azteca in 1973. View More Images
“I really think we could have made a lot more music,” says Pete Escovedo, the Latin percussion master who formed Azteca with his brother, Coke. “Listening to the stuff we recorded, it still sounds great. It still holds up all these years.”
A crowd will get a chance to see if Azteca still can deliver the goods when Escovedo revives it Saturday at the Warfield Theatre to play a Voices of Latin Rock benefit for Autism Awareness, part of a bill that includes War, Los Cenzontles and the Voices of Latin Rock Revue.
After flying up to San Francisco recently from Los Angeles, where he’s lived for nine years, Escovedo, 73, is talking with The Chronicle about growing up in West Oakland, playing in Santana, forming Azteca and other subjects. Dressed in a gray sports jacket and matching tie, with his gray hair slicked back, he looks a bit like a Mafioso. But there’s nothing menacing about the man, unless you’re intimidated by the idea that he can play the fastest timbales in the West – and you should be.
Actually, Escovedo’s daughter, Sheila E., may play the fastest timbales in the West, but the audience Saturday won’t get to experience that because she’ll be anchoring Azteca behind the trap drum kit. Anyone who knows her work with Prince in the ’80s will vouch for her genius as a drummer.
Escovedo was born in Pittsburg and moved to Oakland when he was 4. His father, Pedro Escovedo, an immigrant from Saltillo, Mexico, was a pipe-fitter at Oakland’s Army base during World War II.
“My dad was a wannabe singer,” Escovedo says. “He would throw us all in the car and drive down to one of the ballrooms in Oakland – there was Sweet’s, the Ali Baba, the Sands – because a lot of the concerts were on Sunday afternoons. My mom made him take us so we’d be sure he’d come home. My dad was a rolling stone.
“We’d just sit in the car listening to this great music coming out of the ballroom. The Dorsey brothers, Basie, Latin bands like Machito, Perez Prado. We grew up listening to all this stuff.”
Dad’s first marriage produced seven kids, including Pete and Coke (born Joseph Thomas Escovedo), and his second yielded six more, including Alejandro, a pioneer of West Coast punk and alt-country. Many of Escovedo’s siblings are professional musicians.
As a student at McClymonds High School, Escovedo played saxophone, but he moved to percussion when an older friend from New York played him records by greats such as Tito Puente and Chico O’Farrill.
“Man, I just fell in love with that music,” he says. “It was great to play jazz and have Latin rhythms with it.”When Escovedo was 18, he and Coke met Puente.
“He was playing at a club called the Macumba on Grant Avenue, upstairs in Chinatown. We went there every night. We became great friends with Tito. … We were lucky because we got a chance to meet a lot of the great Cuban drummers at that time: Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo. We’d go to the Blackhawk and see Armando Peraza, Cal Tjader, all the great players. We made friends with all of them and hung out together.”
In the late ’50s, Escovedo put together the Escovedo Brothers Sextet, with Coke on timbales and another brother, Phil, on bass. The group burned through practically every club in Northern California for years.“We were playing in this place where the Broadway Tunnel is,” Escovedo says, unable to recall the name. “That’s when Carlos (Santana) and Chepitó (José Chepitó Areas) came in. They were listening to us play, then said, ‘Man, we’re rehearsing in this garage on Mission Street. Come on over after you guys get off.’ They would rehearse 24 hours a day. So we went, and that was the original Santana band. We started hanging out with them and playing all night. Who knew these guys were going to become famous and make so much money?”
First Coke was hired on timbales as a replacement for Chepitó, then Pete Escovedo joined on congas.
“We had a chance to travel the world,” Escovedo says. “What was really cool for me was we were playing for a lot of white people. There we were, doing our thing, and it was amazing because I think a lot of the people were hypnotized by the sound of the Latin percussion. A lot of people had never heard that stuff before, and Carlos was able to break that barrier.”
But Santana kept shuffling personnel, leading to discontent in the band. It was Coke, Escovedo says, who decided to start a new group, and Azteca was born. With top rhythm players such as Paul Jackson on bass and Lenny White on drums and a large roster of horns and percussion, the group sounded something like a combination of Santana, Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power and the Tito Puente Orchestra.
“It was Coke’s vision,” Escovedo says. “Azteca was a mixture of a lot of different styles of music. All the Latin rhythms were very strong and prominent. At the same time, a lot of the guys came from a jazz background, so we incorporated a lot of jazz harmonies and jazz melodies. At the same time, because we were in the Latin rock era, we incorporated that and a little R&B.”
The groups recorded two magnificent albums for Columbia, “Azteca” and “Pyramid of the Moon,” and toured with the Temptations and Stevie Wonder. Columbia dropped the group after Clive Davis – who had signed Azteca – was ousted in a payola scandal. Mainly, though, it was the size of the group that did it in – 16 players at minimum, often augmented by many more.
“It was crazy,” Escovedo says. “There were times when we left a gig with no money and had to sneak out of the hotel at night. … We started having internal problems in the band because we weren’t making any money. Our bank account ran out, and a lot of guys began to jump ship. The ship was slowly sinking.”
The death knell came when Coke left the group for a solo career. He released three albums for Mercury, then was in high demand as a percussionist for artists such as Wonder and Herbie Hancock.
Coke died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1986.
“He passed away in L.A.,” Escovedo says. “We were in that era of doing some crazy things. Some of us were smart enough to get out of it, and some of us were not. And he was one of the ones who could not get out of it. And it eventually was his downfall. … It was too bad. He was a great musician.”
Compounding the anguish, Coke died on July 13, Escovedo’s birthday.
“It was a tough thing to get over,” he says. “Every time my birthday would come up, it’s kind of like, ‘Do I celebrate, or do I feel bad?’ ”
Escovedo’s career as a bandleader and percussionist – for artists ranging from Woody Herman to Hancock to Stephen Stills to Barry White to Puente – has been nothing but successful. Less so have been his ventures into owning nightclubs.
The resurrection of Azteca began in the summer of 2007, when filmmaker Daniel Meza approached Escovedo and other original members about getting back together and recording a DVD. The group performed at Hollywood’s Key Club on Sept. 15, 2007, featuring surviving members Lenny White, Jackson, Victor Pantoja on congas, Wendy Haas and Errol Knowles on vocals, Bill Courtial on guitar, Jules Rowell on trombone and Escovedo.
The DVD, “La Piedra del Sol” (“Stone of the Sun”), will be available from Internet vendors beginning Tuesday.
For Saturday’s show, the personnel is the same, except Sheila E. is on drums and Curtis Olson replaces Jackson on bass – and there’ll be plenty of guest horn players and percussionists on hand.
A new era for Azteca?
“It remains to the seen,” Escovedo says. “You never know what situations the good Lord puts us in. … I look at all these things as a blessing. We’ll see what happens.”
VOICES OF LATIN ROCK: Azteca, War, Los Cenzontles, Voices of Latin Rock Revue. 7 p.m. Sat. Warfield Theatre, 982 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets $45-$75. Call (415) 421-8497 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.
E-mail David Rubien firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Azteca, Pete Escovedo, Santana, Sheila E, The Warfield Theater