A few months ago, Sheila Escovedo — better-known as Latin music superstar Sheila E. — called Sherman Oaks realtor Matt Epstein about a listing she'd driven by to see if the home was still for sale. It wasn't, but in discussing other property in the area that might meet her needs, Epstein mentioned he was looking for a buyer for a nightclub upstairs at Vitello's, a restaurant he owns in Studio City.
In short order, Sheila's next words in the conversation were, “When are we meeting?”
It turned out that the Escovedo family, overseen by patriarch Pete “Pops” Escovedo, had opened multiple clubs in the San Francisco Bay area over the past several decades, and Sheila was looking for an opportunity here in L.A.
For five years, the upstairs room at Vitello's was one of the premier jazz spaces in Los Angeles, thanks to producer/promoter April Williams, who used it for her Red Carpet Jazz Series. Williams slowly built an audience for the space, improving its sound and lighting equipment and adding a Steinway grand piano.
When she and Vitello's parted ways just over a year ago, the room became more of a variety and cabaret space. It continued to host jazz most weekends, but often without the same success.
After New Year's, Vitello's music calendar went dark. Word began to trickle out about a new venue upstairs, with rumored changes to the layout, sound, lighting and nearly everything else.
Four weeks after it closed, Upstairs at Vitello's reopened as the E Spot Lounge. To call the complete transformation of the club remarkable would be an understatement. Nearly every surface and fixed seat in the club has been changed, the stage has moved to an adjoining wall, and a completely new entrance tunnel was created connecting the ground-floor back bar to the upstairs showroom. The amount of elevated VIP space in the club has been doubled, and the overall experience greatly enhanced. Pete Escovedo's paintings hang on every wall except the one behind the stage.
Nearly a quarter-million dollars has been spent on sound and lighting equipment, and Sheila is still tweaking the space to maximize the experience. After introducing her family's band on the club's first Wednesday night, she headed straight for the new audio/video booth to sit with the house engineer.
The changes at Vitello's extend downstairs as well. Owner Epstein and general manager Brad Roen had already opened up the front of the restaurant to the street with a two-story glass enclosure in the past year. The back bar, which had sat largely idle for the past several years, has been totally redone, giving it a much more modern feel. It now serves as a pre-show holding area, with five video screens looping Sheila E. videos prior to the show, replaced by a multi-camera live feed of the stage when the music begins. Patrons attending the second show of the evening will be treated to a taste of what's in store while they wait.
At this point, those two-show evenings are reserved for bigger-name acts, including pianist Keiko Matsui and bassist Christian McBride's trio, both scheduled in February on successive Sundays. Sheila E.'s connections in the Latin community mean more nights of Latin music, including a regular Thursday salsa night using a large dance floor in front of the stage. Sundays will feature a gospel brunch, with drummer Gorden Campbell's nine-piece “Higher” band (including five vocalists) coming straight from services at a church in Inglewood. Other early acts scheduled include Ozomatli, Oskar Cartaya's Enclave and Jazz in Pink.
Roen, clearly exhausted from a series of 90-hour weeks through January, explained that the restaurant's main entrance would soon be moved to the opposite side on the front of the building, allowing for the current lobby to be transformed into additional dining room seating and opening up additional dining space upstairs.
As of this writing, The E Spot Lounge will continue to host some popular acts that have appeared in past years at Vitello's, including a Monday cabaret night and Latin Grammy-winning percussionist Poncho Sanchez. So far performances at the new venue have been mostly sellouts, even though the layout changes allowed the club's seating to be expanded from just under 100 seats to just over 125.
Sheila E. says, “I was here five days a week in January working to help create the E Spot Lounge, and I'll be here often whenever I'm in town. I have a lot of musical friends, and when I call, they're usually excited about coming here to play and hang out. We're already booking video shoots, and we'll be adding live streaming capability soon. I also want to use our space to showcase new talent in Los Angeles, because there's just so much of it here.”
Her father, "Pops" Escovedo, added when he walked onstage to open his show, “I had four clubs in the Bay area, but who gets a club here? Sheila!”
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For a full schedule of upcoming shows at the E Spot Lounge, visit www.vitellosjazz.com.