Yusef Lateef dies at 93; Grammy winner blended jazz, world music
By Don Heckman, Special to the Los Angeles TimesDecember 24, 2013, 7:27 a.m.
Yusef Lateef, a Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator who brought the sounds of world music to jazz and became one of the first jazz musicians to convert to the teachings of Islam, has died. He was 93.
Lateef died Monday at his home in Shutesbury, Mass., his family announced.
Lateef initially was best known as a dynamic tenor saxophonist with a big tone and a strong sense of swing. But his persistent creative and intellectual curiosity led him to the discovery of an array of other instruments as well as a fascination with various international forms of music.
He was an early advocate for the flute as a credible jazz voice. And his performances on the oboe as early as the ’50s and ’60s were definitive – and rarely matched – displays of the instrument’s jazz capabilities. He searched the globe for more exotic instruments, while mastering, among others, the bamboo flute, the Indian shenai, the Arabic arghul, the Hebrew shofar and the West African Fulani flute.
Tall and shaven-headed, his powerful presence offset by a calm demeanor and the quiet, articulate speaking style of a scholar, Lateef combined thoughtfulness and a probing intellectual curiosity with impressive musical skills. Early in his career, he established his role as a pathfinder in blending elements from a multiplicity of different sources.
His first recordings under his own leadership, released on the Savoy label in the mid-’50s, already revealed a fascination with unusual instruments: In addition to tenor saxophone and the flute, he also plays the arghul. Several of Lateef’s original compositions on those early albums also integrated rhythms and melodic styles from numerous global musical forms.
“In any given composition,” wrote Leonard Feather in The Times in 1975, “there may be long passages that involve classical influences, impressionism, a Middle Eastern flavor, or rhythmic references to Latin America.”
Like a number of musicians – from Duke Ellington to his contemporaries, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins – Lateef objected to the use of the word “jazz” to describe his work. He preferred, instead, the phrase, “autophysiopsychic music,” which he defined as “music which comes from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.”
He also acknowledged the importance of the blues, in his music and elsewhere.
“The blues,” he said in an NPR interview in 2003, “is a very elegant musical form which has given birth to wonderful compositions. I recognize the blues. In fact, if the African had not been brought to America as a slave, the blues would never have been born.”
Lateef’s desire to pursue his own musical path — as a performer, a composer and an educator — led, in 1981, to his refusal to perform in nightclubs. For the next four years, he lived in Nigeria as a senior research fellow at Ahmadu Bello University. Returning to the U.S., he taught at the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College.
In the succeeding decades, Lateef performed in concert halls, colleges and music festivals in Japan, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the U.S. He often led seminars and master classes outlining his belief in the presence of autophysiopsychic music principals in cultures around the world.
“To me,” he told the Times in 1989,” it feels as though there’s a kind of aesthetic thread running through the improvisational musics of the world. If you’re alive and your heart is beating, you’ll find it, and that’s what makes the relationship between you and the world.”
Yusef Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston on April 9, 1920, in Chattanooga, Tenn. When he was 3, he moved to Lorraine, Ohio, with his parents. In 1925 they relocated to Detroit. Music was a constant presence in his early family life.
“My parents were innately musical,” he recalled in the liner notes to his album “Yusef Lateef Anthology.” “Both of them sang, and my mother also played piano. I can recall my mother and her siblings getting together every week to sing spirituals while my grandmother played one of those organs you pump with your feet.”
Growing up in the flourishing Detroit music scene of the ’30s, Lateef’s youthful acquaintances and friends included such nascent jazz artists as Milt Jackson, Lucky Thompson, Hank Jones, Thad Jones and others. By 18, he was working as a professional musician. During the ’40s, occasionally using the name Bill Evans, he played saxophone with big bands led by, among others, Roy Eldridge, Herbie Fields and Lucky Millinder, eventually joining Dizzy Gillespie’s big bebop band in 1949.
In 1950, he studied flute and composition at Wayne State University in Detroit. Converting to Islam in the Ahmadiyya movement, he took the name Yusef Lateef, which translates roughly into “Gentle Joseph.” Over the next two decades, he alternated between leading his own jazz groups, working with such artists as percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist/composer Charles Mingus, pianist Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and guitarist Grant Green, while continuing his education.
The first of Lateef’s more than 100 recordings under his own name – “The Sounds of Yusef” — was released in 1956. In 1969 he received a bachelor’s degree in music, and in 1970 a master’s degree in music education, both from the Manhattan School of Music. In 1975 he was awarded a doctorate in education by the University of Massachusetts, where he also taught as an emeritus Five Colleges professor.
His “African American Epic Suite,” commissioned by the WDR Orchestra in 1993, a four-movement work for quintet and orchestra, has been performed by the Atlanta Symphony and the Detroit Symphony.
In addition to his compositions, which ranged from chamber music to such full-scale works as his “Symphonic Blues Suite,” he has published two collections of short stories, “Spheres” and “Rain Shapes”; a pair of novellas, “A Night in the Garden of Love” and “Another Avenue”; as well as his autobiography, “The Gentle Giant” (written with Herb Boyd). He has also released, through his own company, Fana Music, improvisational method books for flute and other instruments. His paintings have been exhibited at various galleries.
In 2010, Lateef was named an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1987 he was awarded a Best New Age Grammy Award for Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony, a recording in which he performed all the instrumental parts.
Lateef is survived by his wife, Ayesha Lateef; his son, Yusef Lateef; a granddaughter and great-grandchildren.