Dec 24, 2013
Grammy-winning musician and composer Yusef Lateef, one of the first to incorporate world music into traditional jazz, has died. He was 93. “Brother Yusef” lived not far from me, and was a towering figure among New England musicians. His appearance backstage at the 2013 Northampton Jazz Festival, which I helped present, was an unexpected delight.
Lateef, a tenor saxophonist known for his impressive technique, also became a top flutist. He was a jazz soloist on the oboe and played bassoon. "I believe that all humans have knowledge," he said in a 2009 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts. "Each culture has some knowledge. That's why I studied with Saj Dev, an Indian flute player. That's why I studied Stockhausen's music. The pygmies' music of the rain forest is very rich music. So the knowledge is out there. And I also believe one should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. With that kind of inquisitiveness, one discovers things that were unknown before."
As a composer, he created works for performers ranging from soloists to bands to choirs. His longer pieces have been played by symphony orchestras throughout the United States and in Germany. In 1987, he won a Grammy Award for his new age recording "Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony," on which he played all of the instruments. In 2010, he was named an NEA Jazz Master, the nation's highest jazz honor.
He held a bachelor's degree in music and a master's degree in music education from the Manhattan School of Music, and from 1987 to 2002, he was a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, from which he was awarded a doctorate in education. He created his own music theory called "Autophysiopsychic Music," which he described in the NEA interview as "music from one's physical, mental and spiritual self, and also from the heart."
Born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1920, Lateef moved with his family to Detroit five years later. He became acquainted with many top musicians who were part of Detroit's active music scene and by age 18 he was touring professionally with swing bands led by the likes of Roy Eldridge and Hot Lips Page. In 1949, he was invited to perform with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, which was playing be-bop.
He took the name Yusef Lateef after becoming a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, and twice made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Lateef first began recording under his own name in 1956 for Savoy Records, and made more than 100 recordings as a leader for such labels as Prestige, Impulse, Atlantic and his own YAL. In 1960, he moved to New York and joined Charles Mingus' band.
His albums Prayer to the East (1957) and Eastern Sounds (1961, and my favorite of his works) represented some of the first jazz explorations of Middle Eastern and Indian music, which were incorporated into the distinct brand of Detroit hard bop. It’s worth noting that while John Coltrane was experimenting with Indian structures at this time, it would be several years before Trane would record a now-distinctive drone sound and Indian alap improvisational format.
Lateef would go on to perform with some of jazz's best talent, including Cannonball Adderley (he recorded as a member of the sextet in 1962-63), Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Grant Green and Randy Weston, with whom he shared a deep affinity for African music and culture. His final release as a solo artist, Roots Run Deep was released in 2012 on the Rouge Art label.