Reference Entry

Lateef, Yusef (born 1920), Saxophonist, Composer / Arranger, Bandleader, Jazz Musician

Ronald P. Dufour

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Lateef, Yusef (born 1920), Saxophonist, Composer / Arranger, Bandleader, Jazz Musician

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saxophonist, oboist, flutist, composer, and educator, was born William Evans in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the son of William Huddleston, a factory worker, and Eva Spicer, a registered nurse; his family moved to Detroit when he was five. He began to play alto saxophone at eighteen; he switched to tenor the following year and studied with Teddy Buckner until 1944. During his years in Detroit he established lifelong friendships with many of the young jazz musicians who lived in the city in those years, notably Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Lucky Thompson, and Thad Jones and his brothers Elvin and Hank.In 1946 Lateef played with the Lucky Millinder orchestra, as well as with small groups led by the trumpeters Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge; from 1946 until early 1948 he toured with Ernie Fields. Lateef moved to Chicago that year and played in Gene Wright's band; in 1949 he joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band in California and stayed with the group for about ten months. He changed his name to Yusef Lateef following his conversion to Islam in the Ahmadiyya movement in 1948. In January 1950 he toured with the Teddy Hill band, returning to Detroit to care for his family during his wife Sadie's illness. Lateef had two children with Sadie, before marrying a woman named Tahira; nothing else is known about these relationships. He studied flute and composition at Wayne State University in the early 1950s.From 1955 to 1958 Lateef led quintets in Detroit with the trombonist Curtis Fuller, the bassist Wilbur Harden, the drummer Louis Hayes, the guitarist Kenny Burrell, and others at popular Detroit venues such as Klein's Show Bar. In 1955 Lateef was featured extensively as a recorded soloist for the first time on a Donald Byrd recording. He also continued to expand his musical interests, beginning his study of the oboe in 1958 with Ronald Odemark of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. By this time Lateef's style and sound were clearly formulated. He possessed a strong, soulful tone and impressive technique, and he was already deeply interested in Middle Eastern music. In 1957 he made his first recording, for Savoy Records, Prayer to the East. Tunes such as “Blues in Space,” incorporating Arabic inflections, contrasted with others like “Yusef's Mood,” a powerful piece rooted in rhythm and blues.On his next recording, Jazz and the Sounds of Nature (1957), Lateef explored Afro-Cuban aspects of jazz, and Other Sounds, also from 1957, saw him using Asian scales, microtones, and a variety of African instruments. The Asian influence emerged again that year on The Sounds of Yusef, where he used a Chinese gong and made other sound experiments later associated with the avant-garde—the use of 7-Up bottles, for instance, and the squeaky surface of balloons. In Lateef's hands these sounds were accessible and were played within the mainstream jazz tradition.Lateef's next few albums, all for Riverside Records, clearly affirmed his commitment to tradition, producing both meditative and up-tempo music that was always beautiful and filled with interesting ideas—Cry! Tender, The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef, and particularly The Centaur and the Phoenix. Lateef's interest in Asian music and instrumentation reached fuller expression in 1961's Eastern Sounds, an album of Eastern modes and intervals again situated in a jazz framework; “Blues from the Orient,” for instance, is a wonderfully exotic, oboe-driven piece with strong support from his pianist during these years, Barry Harris.Lateef's personal path had long been as idiosyncratic as his musical one. When he had moved to New York in 1960 he continued his music studies at the Manhattan School of Music. Also in 1960, Lateef played and recorded with Charles Mingus and led his own groups in gigs at Birdland and the Village Gate. From 1962 to 1964 he was a member of Cannonball Adderley's group, and also played with the guitarist Grant Green. After he left Adderley he formed a new quintet that included the trumpeter Richard Williams and signed a contract with Impulse! Records, continuing to develop his exploratory style. Even the relatively traditional Live at Pep's (2 vols., 1964), an extended set of hard bop originals and jazz classics, mixed sax solos with instruments such as flute, oboe, shenai, and argol. The Blue Yusef Lateef (1968) added tamboura and koto to the mix and continued to mine Eastern scale modalities and polyphony. After his return from Africa, Lateef's music took a new turn. He had always been interested in more extended, nonjazz compositions. The Augusta Symphony Orchestra premiered his first orchestral composition, “Blues Suite” (or “Suite 16”) in 1969, and the piece was later performed by the Detroit Symphony and recorded by the WDR Orchestra. He earned a BA in Music from the Manhattan School of Music in 1969 and an MA in Music Education in 1970. He taught in the theory department at Manhattan in 1971 and was an associate professor of music at the Borough of Manhattan Community College from 1972 to 1976. In 1974 the NDR Orchestra commissioned a tone poem, “Lalit,” and also premiered and recorded Lateef's Symphony no. 1, Tahira. After recording the similar Ten Years Hence (1975), a live session from Keystone Korner in San Francisco, Lateef took a long break from performing to live for several years in Africa; his time there was marked by an appointment as a senior researcher at Ahmadubelaa University in Nigeria. Also in 1975 he was awarded a PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writing a dissertation titled “An Overview of Western and Islamic Education.” After earning his doctorate he became a Five Colleges professor of music in Massachusetts.Lateef did not abandon jazz performance entirely, but he continued to focus on what he termed “autophysiopsychic” music, or “that which comes from one's spiritual, physical and emotional self.” In practice, this style seems to be an extension of his interest in world music, particularly in his collaborations with the composer and percussionist Adam Rudolph from the 1970s and beyond. Lateef founded his own record label, YAL, in the 1980s to give him the freedom to record what he began to refer to as “world” jazz. Many of these efforts also reflected his ongoing fascination with mysticism and were not always well received by jazz audiences, though they always reflected Lateef's own deep-felt musical and philosophical values as well as his undiluted technical skills. Lateef also wrote a concerto for piano and orchestra, and he was awarded a Grammy Award in 1987 for Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony, in which he performed all the parts. Lateef also released several more traditional jazz sessions on his label, including recordings with Von Freeman (1992), Rene McClean (1993), and Ricky Ford (1994). Some of the best recordings from this period include The World at Peace (1995), Beyond the Sky (2000), and a session with the group Eternal Wind called Live at the Luckman Theater (2001). This last session is a quintet that includes everything from flute and tenor saxophone to table, didjiridoo, gongs, and whistles. On these recordings Lateef's frequently incendiary playing shows his tenor credentials to have been undiminished by time.Yusef Lateef made more than a hundred recordings in his career, for labels such as Savoy, Prestige, Contemporary, Impulse, Atlantic, and YAL. He performed at colleges and music festivals all over the world and published a novella, two collections of short stories, and several methods books. He was a pioneer in the use of Asian and African instruments and compositional forms in jazz and was a virtuoso performer on tenor saxophone, flute, and oboe and on other instruments that he introduced into jazz ensembles. Lateef's career remains, in the end, unique in jazz history. His playing and composing—from bebop to melodic and mystical world music—have significantly expanded the musical language of jazz. He retired from teaching in 2002 at the age of eighty-one.

Reference Entry.  1333 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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