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Remembering Jazz musician Yusef Lateef

January 6, 2014

The Centaur and the Phoenix – Yusef Lateef  (full album)

Yusef Lateef, an uncommonly adventurous saxophonist-flutist-oboist who more than half a century ago dared to bring sounds from around the

Dr.  Yusef Abdul Lateef

Dr. Yusef Abdul Lateef

globe into jazz, died Monday morning in his home in Shutesbury, Mass., according to an announcement on his website. He was 93.

Lateef’s eclectic, open-eared approach to culture inspired him to reject the term “jazz,” which he called a “misnomer,” preferring instead “autophysiopsychic music.” He described this as “music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self, and also from the heart,” in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts.

Regardless of terminology, Lateef was among the first in jazz to incorporate the far-flung sounds, instrumentation and techniques now routinely embraced as “world music” by jazz musicians and others.

“Each culture has some knowledge,” Lateef said in an interview with the NEA, which in 2010 awarded him a Jazz Masters Fellowship, the nation’s highest jazz honor. “That’s why I studied with Saj Dev, an Indian flute player. That’s why I studied (Karlheinz) 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.”

Lateef lived up to his credo, as recently as last fall releasing “Voice Prints,” one of the best recordings of the year, in which he partnered in free-ranging improvisations with fellow experimenters Roscoe Mitchell, Adam Rudolph and Douglas Ewart.

Born William Emanuel Huddleston on Oct. 9, 1920, in Chattanooga, Tenn., he moved with his family to Detroit in 1925 and in his youth immersed himself in the city’s robust jazz scene. By 18, he began touring with such leading figures as Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge and, later, Lucky Millinder. In 1949, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, a cauldron of then-radical bebop.

He converted to Islam, took the name Yusef Lateef and flourished in Detroit in the 1950s, recording for Savoy Records and exploring exotic instrumentation and methodologies from Africa, the Middle East and beyond. After moving to New York in 1960, Lateef worked with Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley and presided over his own, critically acclaimed albums on Impluse! and Atlantic. He also composed large-scale pieces, such as “Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony,” which won a 1987 Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance.

His steeped-in-blues tenor saxophone playing and vocal chant in Grace Cathedral was a high point of the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1998, a testament to the core spirituality of his music.

Stravinsky said his greatest thrill was not when he heard the music played back but when the idea, when he was composing, came to him, there was an urge of warmth and beauty and spirituality,” Lateef said in the NEA interview. “That’s why we remember certain melodies. I think they’re providentially inspired, if you will.”

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