YUSEF LATEEF 1930 – 2013
By PETER KEEPNEWS
NY Times Published: December 24, 2013
NY Times Published: December 24, 2013
Yusef Lateef, a jazz saxophonist and flutist who spent his career crossing musical boundaries, died on Monday at his home in Shutesbury, Mass., near Amherst. He was 93.
Mr. Lateef started out as a tenor saxophonist with a big tone and a bluesy style, not significantly more or less talented than numerous other saxophonists in the crowded jazz scene of the 1940s. He served a conventional jazz apprenticeship, working in the bands of Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie and others. But by the time he made his first records as a leader, in 1957, he had begun establishing a reputation as a decidedly unconventional musician.
He began expanding his instrumental palette by doubling on flute, by no means a common jazz instrument in those years. He later added oboe, bassoon and non-Western wind instruments like the shehnai and arghul. “My attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played by the same old horns,” he once told DownBeat magazine. “When I looked into those other cultures, I found that good instruments existed there.”
Those experiments led to an embrace of new influences. At a time when jazz musicians in the United States rarely sought inspiration any farther geographically than Latin America, Mr. Lateef looked well beyond the Western Hemisphere. Anticipating the cross-cultural fusions of later decades, he flavored his music with scales, drones and percussion effects borrowed from Asia and the Middle East. He played world music before world music had a name.
In later years he incorporated elements of contemporary concert music and composed symphonic and chamber works. African influences became more noticeable in his music when he spent four years studying and teaching in Nigeria in the early 1980s.
Mr. Lateef professed to find the word “jazz” limiting and degrading; he preferred “autophysiopsychic music,” a term he invented. He further distanced himself from the jazz mainstream in 1980 when he declared that he would no longer perform any place where alcohol was served. “Too much blood, sweat and tears have been spilled creating this music to play it where people are smoking, drinking and talking,” he explained to The Boston Globe in 1999.
Still, with its emphasis on melodic improvisation and rhythmic immediacy, his music was always recognizably jazz at its core. And as far afield as his music might roam, his repertoire usually included at least a few Tin Pan Alley standards and, especially, plenty of blues.
He was born on Oct. 9, 1920, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Many sources give his birth name as William Evans, the name under which he performed and recorded before converting to Islam in the late 1940s (he belonged to the reformist Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) and changing his name to Yusef Abdul Lateef. But according to Mr. Lateef’s website, he was born William Emanuel Huddleston.
When he was 5 his family moved to Detroit, where he went on to study saxophone at Miller High School. After spending most of the 1940s on the road as a sideman with various big bands, he returned to Detroit in 1950 to care for his ailing wife and ended up staying for a decade.
While in Detroit he became a popular and respected fixture on the local nightclub scene and a mentor to younger musicians. He also resumed his studies, taking courses in flute and composition at Wayne State University and later studying oboe as well.
In the later part of the decade he began traveling regularly from Detroit to the East Coast with his working band to record for the Savoy and Prestige labels. By 1960 he had settled in New York, where he worked with Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley and the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji before forming his own quartet in 1964.
He was soon a bona fide jazz star, with successful albums on the Impulse and Atlantic labels and a busy touring schedule. But he also remained a student, and he eventually became a teacher as well.
He received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, and taught both there and at Borough of Manhattan Community College in the 1970s. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1975 (his dissertation: “An Overview of Western and Islamic Education”) and later taught there and elsewhere in New England.
The more he studied, the more ambitious Mr. Lateef grew as a composer. He recorded his seven-movement “Symphonic Blues Suite” in 1970 and his “African-American Epic Suite,” a four-part work for quintet and orchestra, two decades later. His album “Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony,” on which he played all the instruments via overdubbing, won a Grammy Award in 1988, though not in any of the jazz or classical categories; it was named best New Age performance. Mr. Lateef said at the time that, while he was grateful for the award, he didn’t know what New Age music was.
In 2010 he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mr. Lateef was preceded in death by his wife, Tahira, and a son and daughter. He is survived by his wife, Ayesha; a son, Yusef; a granddaughter; and several great-grandchildren.
His creative output was not limited to music. He painted, wrote poetry and published several books of fiction. He also ran his own record company, YAL, which he established in 1992.
He remained musically active until a few months before his death. In April he appeared at Roulette in Brooklyn in a program titled “Yusef Lateef: Celebrating 75 Years of Music,” performing with the percussionist Adam Rudolph and presenting the premieres of two works, one for string quartet and the other for piano.
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