Influential jazz musician Yusef Lateef dies

Posted Dec. 25, 2013, at 5:04 p.m.

Yusef Lateef, a Grammy Award-winning musical explorer who played many exotic instruments and was among the first to combine jazz with elements of what became known as “world music,” died Monday at his home in Shutesbury, Mass. He was 93.

His wife, Ayesha Lateef, confirmed the death to the Detroit Free Press. The cause was not immediately disclosed.

Lateef 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 popularize 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 other musicians, including saxophonists Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and John Coltrane.

In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts named Lateef a jazz master, the country’s highest honor 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 a 2008 interview with jazz journalist Marc Myers’ Jazz Wax website. “I find that the word ‘jazz’ is a meaningless term that too narrowly defines the music I play.”

Lateef 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 jazz tune, “Brother John,” in honor 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.

“In any given composition,” Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in 1975, “there may be long passages that involve classical influences, impressionism, a Middle Eastern flavor, or rhythmic references to Latin America.”

Even as Lateef took his music in new directions, he worked in a recognizable 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, Lateef was a member of the groundbreaking big band led by bebop trumpeter 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, nurturing the careers of pianists Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Louis Hayes.

In 1957, Lateef released “Jazz for the Thinker,” the first of what would eventually total 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.”

William Emanuel Huddleston was born Oct. 9, 1920, in Chattanooga, Tenn. His family moved to Ohio before settling in Detroit.

Lateef began performing in 1938 under the name William Evans. After converting to Islam in 1948, he changed his name to Yusef Abdul Lateef.

“In the mid-1950s, I realized I had to broaden my vision, in terms of composing and recording,” Lateef told the U-T San Diego newspaper in 1997. “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 received a bachelor’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1969 and, a year later, a master’s degree. 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, Lateef taught at UMass. from 1987 to 2002. He published several books of fiction and, in 2006, an autobiography, “The Gentle Giant,” co-written with Herb Boyd. Lateef also exhibited his paintings in art galleries.

His first wife, Tahira Lateef, and two children predeceased him.

Survivors include his wife, Ayesha Lateef of Shutesbury, and a son. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Lateef continued to compose new music and to 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.”

 

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