Saxophonist-Flutist Yusef Lateef Dies at 93
Yusef Lateef, a saxophonist-flutist, composer and NEA Jazz Master whose style embraced global influences, died on Dec. 23 at his home in Shutesbury, Mass. He was 93.
Lateef’s music was grounded in blues and jazz but he found unique ways to incorporate influences from Asia, the Middle East and Africa into a new style he called “autophysiopsychic music.” In addition to tenor saxophone and flute, he played the bassoon, oboe and woodwinds from other countries, such as the Egyptian arghul and Chinese xun, a vessel flute.
“To me, the various instruments I play are like colors to the compositions just as colors are to a canvas,” he said in the May 20, 1965, issue of DownBeat.
His 1987 album Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony (Rhino Atlantic) won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance. In 2010, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston on Oct. 9, 1920, in Chattanooga, Tenn. His family, which changed its last name to Evans, moved to Detroit when he was 5.
He studied tenor saxophone at Sidney D. Miller High School and, by age 18, was playing music professionally as a member of the 13 Spirits Of Swing, a Detroit group led by trumpeter Matthew Rucker.
In 1946, he joined Lucky Millinder’s band in New York. He stayed with the group for just over a week, but remained in New York and was exposed to the playing styles of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis.
Lateef settled in Chicago in 1948 and caught his first big break when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1949.
“The music you had to play and the forms were very modern,” Lateef recalled in the 1965 DownBeat article. “It wasn’t every band that would play music like that. And the interpretation of the musicians was very informative, as far as phrasing.”
In 1950, he converted to Islam as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and changed his name to Yusef Lateef. He stayed in Detroit throughout the ’50s, working with musicians such as guitarist Kenny Burrell, who suggested he take up the flute.
Jazz Mood, Lateef’s debut as a leader for Savoy in 1956, signaled his interest in non-Western music. 1958’s Prayer To The East explored Middle Eastern influences but covered jazz compositions such as “Lover Man” and Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.”
During this period, Lateef also recorded for Prestige, releasing The Sounds Of Yusef (1958), Other Sounds (1959) and Cry!–Tender (1960).
John Coltrane was inspired by Lateef’s use of Eastern music in jazz. In the Sept. 29, 1960, issue of DownBeat, Coltrane wrote: “I want to cover as many forms of music as I can put into a jazz context and play on my instruments. I like Eastern music; Yusef Lateef has been using this in his playing for some time.”
As the Detroit scene began to slow down, Lateef relocated to New York in 1960 and joined Charles Mingus’ band. He led his own quartets and quintets and, in 1962, joined Cannonball Adderley’s group.
Lateef recorded albums for the Impulse label, including Jazz ’Round The World (1964) and The Golden Flute (1966), and began a long association with Atlantic in 1968, releasing The Complete Yusef Lateef and The Blue Yusef Lateef.
He recorded for CTI in the late ’70s, releasing Autophysiopsychic and In A Temple Garden, and formed his own label, YAL, in 1992.
Lateef was a passionate student of so-called world music. He studied with the Indian flutist Saj Dej and taught at a university in Nigeria.
“I’m constantly looking for different sounds to incorporate in jazz,” he said in the May 1, 1958, issue of DownBeat.
He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music. In 1975, he earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He taught there from 1987 to 2002.
Lateef released Voice Prints—a set of improvisations with Roscoe Mitchell, Adam Rudolph and Douglas Ewart recorded in 2008—on Rudolph’s Meta Records in August 2013.
Lateef was predeceased by his first wife, Tahira Lateef, and a son and a daughter. He is survived by his wife, Ayesha Lateef; son, Yusef Lateef; granddaughter and great-grandchildren.