Yusef Lateef was a Grammy Award-winning musical explorer who played an array of exotic instruments and was among the first to combine jazz with elements of what became known as world music. He began his career as a saxophonist in swing bands in the 1930s and had a career that lasted 75 years. A man of boundless musical and intellectual curiosity, he found inspiration in the musical motifs of Asia and Africa as early as the 1950s.
He was one of the first jazz musicians to popularise the flute, and he soon added the oboe, bassoon and various other woodwind instruments from around the world to his performances. His eclectic approach influenced many others, including the saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. In 2010 the US National Endowment for the Arts named Lateef a jazz master, the country’s highest honour for jazz musicians.
“I’d like to help establish jazz as a pure, respected American cultural form,” he said in 1958. “I’d like the listener to be elevated morally by listening.” But by the 1970s he had come to disdain the term “jazz” because of what he considered various demeaning connotations associated with it. “If you look it up, you’ll see that its synonyms include ‘nonsense,’ ‘blather,’ ‘claptrap’ and other definitions that reduce the music to poppycock and skulduggery,” he said in 2008. “I find that the word ‘jazz’ is a meaningless term that too narrowly defines the music I play.” He preferred the self-coined word “autophysiopsychic” to describe what he called “music which comes from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.”
His compositions included a well-known tune, “Brother John,” in honour of Coltrane, and other works for jazz combos, string quartets and symphony orchestras. In 1987 he won a Grammy Award for “best new age performance” for Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony, in which he played all the instruments.
Even as Lateef took his music in new directions, he worked in a recognisable jazz vocabulary, which he learned while growing up in the musical cauldron of Detroit. His primary instrument remained the tenor saxophone, which he played with a bold, bluesy intensity. He was practically a one-man encyclopedia of jazz history, working early in his career with swing-style trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Oran “Hot Lips” Page. By 1949 he was a member of the ground-breaking big band led by Dizzy Gillespie.
Tall and powerfully built, with a distinctive shaved head, Lateef became one of the prime movers of Detroit’s burgeoning jazz scene in the 1950s. In 1957 he released Jazz for the Thinker, the first of more than 100 albums. He adopted the rhythms and tones of other cultures in such early recordings as Prayer to the East (1957) and Eastern Sounds (1961).
“People don’t accept my definitions of what I do,” he said in 1997. “Ideally, the only way my music would be filed in record stores would be under my name, not under any category.”
He was born William Huddleston in Chattanooga in 1920, his family moving to Ohio before settling in Detroit. He began performing in 1938 under the name William Evans, but after converting to Islam in 1948 he changed his name to Yusef Abdul Lateef.
“In the mid-1950s, I realised I had to broaden my vision, in terms of composing and recording,” he recalled. “It was then I began to look into the music of other cultures, including Indian, Hebrew, Persian and the Philippines.” He spent hours in the Detroit public library listening to music from other countries, then acquired, and sometimes built, a variety of flutes, oboes and other instruments.
By 1960 he had moved to New York, where he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 1969, gaining a master’s degree a year later. He received a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1975.
After living in Nigeria for four years in the 1980s, he taught at the University of Massachusetts from 1987 to 2002. He published several books of fiction and, in 2006, an autobiography, The Gentle Giant. He also exhibited his paintings.
Lateef continued to compose and perform around the world until shortly before his death. “To me, it feels as though there’s a kind of aesthetic thread running through the improvisational musics of the world,” he said in 1989. “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.”
William Emanuel Huddleston (Yusef Abdul Lateef), musician: born Chattanooga, Tennessee 9 October 1920; married firstly Tahira (deceased; two children deceased), secondly Ayesha (one son); died Shutesbury, Massachusetts 23 December 2013.
© The Washington Post