Saxophonist, flutist, oboist, educator
Multi-instrumentalist, educator, poet—Yusef Lateef emerged, in the 1940s, as one of the first jazz musicians to study the music of Afro-Asian cultures and to embrace the traditional teachings of Islam. Since his early musical career in Detroit, Yusef Lateef has traveled the world and various creative avenues. A contributor to the development of the flute and oboe as mainstream jazz instruments, Lateef is a serious student of ethnic instruments from around the world, for which he has emerged as a time-honored mentor among jazzmen and the post-bebop cultural avant garde.
Yusef Lateef was born William Evans in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on October 9, 1920. At age three Lateef moved with his parents to Lorraine, Ohio, and later relocated to Detroit. The Evans family resided in an apartment above the Arcade Theatre on Hastings Street—the cultural and business center of the city’s crowded eastside ghetto. In the liner notes of the Yusef Lateef Anthology, Lateef recalled his early exposure to music: “My parents were innately musical. Both of them sang, and my mother also played piano. I can recall my mother and her siblings getting together every week to sing spirituals while my grandmother played one of those organs you pump with your feet.” At a Pentecostal Church near his grade school, he stood by the building’s painted-black windows to hear the musical sounds of the congregation.
Lateef’s formal music education began at Miller High School under the instruction Louis Cabrara and Mr. Goldberg, who influenced Lateef’s classmate Milt Jackson to take up the study of the vibraphone. At venues around Hastings Street, Lateef watched stage shows and on Monday nights attended big band performances at the Graystone Ballroom and the Paradise Theatre on Woodward Avenue. After taking up alto saxophone, Lateef switched to tenor, and by 1939 found work in the four-man sax section of “Matthew Rucker and His 13 Spirits of Swing.” In 1941 a friend introduced him to Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone solo on Jay McShann’s recording “Hootie Blues.” As he stated, in the Yusef Anthology, “We never heard the alto saxophone played that way, and were very impressed.”
In 1944 one of Lateef’s early musical associations, Detroit-born tenor saxophonist Eli “Lucky” Thompson, helped him land a job with trumpeter Erskine Hawkins’ Bama State Collegians. When the Bama State Collegians broke up in Chicago in 1946, Lucky Thompson recommended Lateef to bandleader Lucius “Lucky” Millinder and later to trumpeters Oran “Hot Lips” Page and Roy Eldridge, all of whom employed Lateef until he
For the Record…
Born William Evans, Chattanooga Tennessee, October 9, 1920; education: B.A. Music Wayne State University; B.A. Music Education M.A. Manhattan School of Music; Doctorate Music Education University of Massachusetts, 1975; Senior Research Fellowship in Zaria, Nigeria, 1980-84.
Took up alto-saxophone late 1930s; studied music at Detroit’s Miller High School; performed with Matthew Rucker and His 13 Spirits of Swing 1939; joined Bama State Collegians 1944; 1946-1948 performed with Lucky Millinder, Oran “Hot Lips” Page, and Roy Eldridge; performed with Dizzy Gillespie big band 1949; returned to Detroit 1950 to play local clubs; formed own group in 1954; recorded for Savoy label 1956-58; moved to New York 1960 and joined Charles Mingus; performed with Olatunji 1961-62; recorded for Riverside 1960 and Prestige 1961; performed with Cannonball Adderly 1962-64; reformed group 1964; recorded for Impulse! 1963-66; signed with Atlantic Records 1967; formed new working quartet 1971; stopped playing nightclubs 1981; taught and played festivals 1981 to present; instructor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
went on the road with Oklahoma bandleader Ernie Fields. Tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath recalled, in Swing to Bop, hearing Fields’ ensemble: “That’s the first band I saw Bill Evans playing in—Yusef Lateef—but he was Bill Evans then. He came to Wilmington, North Carolina, where I was going to high school. I remember that big tone, even then.” Upon leaving Fields’ band, Lateef performed with alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt and tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons in Chicago. He recorded with the band of bassist Gene Wright for the Aristocrat label—a 1948 session which included pianist Sun Ra.
In 1949 Lateef joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in Chicago. In April, Gillespie took the band to New York and cut several sides for Bluebird/Victor including Gil Fuller’s “Swedish Suite,” Bud Johnson’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues,” and numbers featuring vocalists Johnny Hartman and chief scatter Joe “Bebop” Carroll. On “Jump Did-La Ba,” recorded in a May session for Victor, Carroll’s vocals are accompanied by the solos of Gillespie and Lateef. In following month, Lateef returned to the studio with Gillespie’s band to record such bebop vocal sides as “Hey Pete! Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat, “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid,” and Mary Lou Williams’ “In the Land of Ooo-Bla Dee.”
According to the most reliable sources, William Evans changed his name to Yusef Lateef (an Arabic name which translates to Joseph who is gentle or who is kind) late in 1949, the time of his stint with the Gillespie band. As jazz writer Ira Gitler pointed out in the liner notes to Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, on Gillespie’s 1949 April-May recording session sheets Lateef’s name is still listed as “W. Evans” —a reference which sheds some light on the time of his conversion to Islam (some scholars have placed several years earlier). In his memoir, To Be or Not to Bop, Gillespie stated, “Yusef told us how a Muslim missionary, Kahil Ahmed Nasir, had converted many modern jazz musicians in New York to Islam and how he read the Quran daily and strictly observed the prayer and dietary regulations of the religion.” Years of devout study of orthodox Islam inspired Lateef to learn to speak, read, and write in arabic, the orthodox language of the holy Quran.
Following his departure from Gillespie’s band, William Evans—now known formally as Yusef Lateef—arrived back in Detroit in 1950 to be reunited with his family and to pursue an academic musical education. A year later, influenced by guitarist Kenny Burrell who studied music composition at Wayne State University, he enrolled in the school’s music program, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music as well as taking up the study of the flute. During his early years in Detroit, he also studied flute with Larry Teal at the Teal School of Music.
While in Detroit, Lateef helped Burrell and trumpeter Donald Byrd establish the New World Music Society, a musicians collective headquartered in a second floor venue, the New World Stage. Apart from serving on a three man organizing panel, Lateef eventually became vice president of the society. His musical participation at the New World Stage was represented on Donald Byrd’s recording, First Byrd (recently reissued as First Flight), featuring Lateef on tenor sax, Barry Harris on piano, Bernard McKinney on euphonium, Alvin Jackson on bass, and Frank Gant on drums. The session, recorded live at the New World Stage on August 23, 1955, features, along with several standards, Barry Harris’ tribute composition, “Yusef.”
Beginning in 1953 Lateef often led the house band at a popular westside jazz club, the Blue Bird Inn. At this time he began to attract notice among local Detroiters for his incorporation of Eastern musical and cultural influences. In 1953 a local black newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle, published a semi-sensational photograph of him at a local club entitled, “The Man With The Turban.”
In 1954 Lateef took up the formal study of the oboe, and formed his own group, a quintet comprising trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Hugh Lawson, bassist Ernie Farrow, and drummer Louis Hayes. By 1955 the band became a fixture at George Kliens’ Kleins Show Bar, a westside club. Lateef’s drummer Oliver Jackson, recalled, in the liner notes for Yusef Lateef, the creative interaction at Klein’s: “I learned control from Teefski and I learned what swing was all about.”
In 1955 Savoy record producer Ozzie Cadenza invited Lateef and his group to record for the New York-based label. “We were working six nights a week in Detroit,” recalled Lateef in The Yusef Anthology, “and when a record session came up, we would finish the Sunday night performance, immediately drive to Hackensack, New Jersey, record in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio on Monday, then drive back on Monday night, which was our off night.” Many compositions from Lateef’s first 1956 Savoy session, recently reissued as Jazz Moods, featured original Lateef compositions augmented by the sound of a one-stringed instrument, the rabat, finger cymbals, the scraped gourd, castanets, and the argol, described as a flute-like wooden oboe-sounding instrument. Lateef’s other early Savoy sides included such Detroit musicians as fluglehornist Wilbur Harden, pianist Terry Pollard, and drummer Oliver Jackson.
By 1960 Lateef and his band moved to New York. That same year he left his own ensemble to join the band of bassist and composer Charles Mingus. An orchestral jazz session, Mingus’ 1960 LP, Pre-Bird reissued in 1965 as Mingus Revisited, featured Lateef’s saxophone solos above the large brass section, and twin-flute performances with Eric Dolphy. After leaving Mingus’ band in 1961, Lateef performed a year with the drum ensembleof Nigerian-born Babatunde Olatunji—a Yoruba singer, composer, and percussionist whose artistry reflected the high cultural tradition of the Yoruba royal court. (Though it never materialized, Lateef entered into an informal agreement with Olatunji and Coltrane in 1968 to form an independent booking agency). In 1961 Lateef also appeared as a guest on guitarist Grant Green’s critically acclaimed LP Grantstand. The album’s classic number, “Blues in Maude’s Flat,” observed Tom Evered, in the liner notes to The Best Of Grant Green Vol. 1, “offers plenty of playing space to all involved, starting with a priceless Yusef Lateef performance over the moody and rich support of [organist] Jack McDuff and Green.
In 1962 Lateef joined alto-saxophonist Julian “Cannon-ball” Adderly’s band. Added to the group through the connections of Adderly’s pianist Joe Zawinul, Lateef’s membership expanded the group to a sextet. During his two year stay with Adderly many of Lateef’s original compositions appeared on Adderly’s albums. The Cannonball Adderly Sextet in New York spotlighted the Lateef originals “Synanthesia” and “Planet Earth” —a number which Orrin Keepnews described in the album’s liner notes as “lusty number that displays how well the band now uses its three-horn status to construct effective background for the soloists.” Another acclaimed live recording, the 1963 LP Nippon Soul, contained the Lateef compositions “The Weaver” and “Brother John,” dedicated to John Coltrane. As Keepnews pointed out, in the album’s liner notes, “Brother John” offered a “fascinating performance on oboe, what can only be called a brilliant emulation (certainly not an imitation) of Coltrane’s soprano work.”
Around 1964 Lateef left Adderly to reform his own group—once again recruiting former sidemen Hugh Lawson and Ernie Farrow. Aside from a varied repertoire of standards and original compositions, Lateef introduced the group to various avant garde harmonic conceptions. “One of Yusef’s were very free,” recalled pianist Lawson in Thinking Jazz. “We had to improvise using classical composition technique he had gotten from [Karl] Stockhausen like a twelve-tone row. Yusef wouldn’t tell what to play, but he might ask you to project a certain kind of mood.” At various intervals, Lateef’s group featured such drummers as James Black, Lex Humphries, and Detroiter Roy Brooks. Bassist Farrow was eventually replaced by Coltrane veteran Reggie Workman, and later New Zealand-born Mike Nock took over for Lawson at the piano. These various combinations of Lateef’s early 1960s working groups were captured on several LPs on the ABC/Impulse label between 1963 and 1966.
Signing with Atlantic in 1967, Lateef recorded albums that explored various Third World and African American musical elements. His 1968 release, The Blue Yusef Lateef, brought together a number of former Detroit jazzmen such as guitarist Kenny Burrell, saxophonist Sonny Red, and Hugh Lawson. His effort to incorporate modern soul and funk-oriented sounds emerged in a 1969 tribute album to the local landmarks of his former home: Yusef Lateef’s Detroit: Latitude 42 30’-Longitude 83. His creative relationship with Atlantic allowed him to continue to pursue the use of non-Western instruments—shanai, argol, rabat, and self-made bamboo flutes, modeled after those played by Nigerian Falani herdsmen. Though Lateef experienced criticism concerning his experimental forays, he stated in Down Beat that his “attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played on the same horns.” He added, “If you’re recording two albums a year, you can’t keep giving the audience the same thing.”
His 1971 release, Suite 16, included his seven movement work, “Symphonic Blues Suite.” Drawing upon the influences of J.S. Bach and modernist composer Karl Stockhausen, the suite, described by Lateef as “Neo-Concerto Grosso,” was performed with Cologne Radio Orchestra and conducted by William S. Fischer. In his Down Beat review, Larry Ridley wrote that “this album is a must, and shows the ever-expanding musical language of a truly great artist.” Lateef’s long tenure at Atlantic brought forth a 1989 Lateef keyboard album, Nocturne. Accompanied by several wind instruments, Lateef’s solo work on electronic keyboards delved into bi-tonal harmonic explorations.
In 1971, Lateef recruited pianist Kenny Barron who, along with bassist Bob Cunningham and drummer Albert Heath, made up an exceptional working quartet. Ina 1975 Down Beat article, Barron, who first met Lateef a decade earlier at age 17, described the band’s fifty-five year old leader: “Yusef amazes me,” commented Barron, “I hope I have that kind of energy when I’m his age. And naturally, we draw on that; everyone sort of feeds off another. This is one of the most enjoyable bands I’ve ever been in.” The holder of M.A. from the Manhattan School of Music and a Doctorate in Education from the University Of Massachusetts, Lateef inspired Barron and his fellow bandmates to resume their formal education at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he held a position as an associate professor of music.
In 1973 the band published the collective work Something Else: Writings of the Yusef Lateef Quartet. Lateef’s skills as an instructor and educator took him to Nigeria in 1980 where, for the next four years, he occupied a position as Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in the city of Zaria. Returning in 1986 he took teaching positions at the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College. Presently, he continues to teach at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.
In 1981 Lateef stopped performing in venues which sold alcohol, and directed his live appearances to more conducive concert settings. In 1992 he appeared as a guest at the John Coltrane Memorial Concert, and in July of the following year, performed in Verona, Italy, and Stockholm, Sweden. In November of 1993, he premiered his “African-American Suite” in Cologne, Germany.
For Yusef Lateef art is a reflection of one’s individual spirituality and personal identity. When asked by writers to rate music by numerical system, he refuses to employ such criticism on the premise that, as he explained in a Down Beat “Blind Fold Test,” “No one record is better; each is unique, and if I can relate my sense of concepts to all of them, I’II become that much more complete.” Like his contemporaries Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, Lateef opposes the use of the word “jazz” in defining his music. He prefers, instead, to describe his genre of expression as “auto-physio-psychic” music. “If anartist paints a picture,” related Lateef in Down Beat,” he has a right to say what it is. No critics or Councils For the Arts have a right to define it for him.” In the 1970s he requested that his listing not appear in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz, because the work was not, as Feather noted in the text, “an encyclopedia of music.” Nevertheless, Feather included Lateef, explaining, as he noted in the text, that Lateef’s “wide-ranging” contributions were too important to be omitted from the volume.
Lateef’s emphasis on the value of individual expression and world cultures, served as the inspiration for the title of his 1994 Rhino Records anthology Every Village Has a Song, a comprehensive musical retrospective of his career spanning a half century. A primogenitor of the current world music trend, Lateef’s study of third world music preceded the creative paths of John Coltrane and subsequent musicians who looked beyond the African-American musical, religious, and cultural roots. Over the last two decades, Lateef has composed symphonic suites, three-one act plays, numerous pieces of poetic verse, a work of vignettes entitled Spheres, and books of musical arrangements. Recognized throughout several continents, Lateef has earned himself a place as a talent of individual vision. “There are some musicians who have a natural, innate, soulful, bluesy feeling, and sound,” observed Larry Ridley in Down Beat “Yusefs artistry is of this natural breed.”
Jazz Moods, Savoy, 1957.
Other Sounds, Prestige, 1957.
Cry-Tender, Prestige, 1960.
The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef, Milestone, 1960.
The Centaur and the Phoenix, Riverside, 1960.
Eastern Sounds, Moodsville, 1961.
Into Something, Prestige, 1961.
Live at Pep’s, Impulse!, 1964.
The Complete Yusef Lateef, Atlantic, 1968.
Yusef Lateef’s Detroit: Latitude 4235’-Longitude 83, Atlantic, 1969.
Yusef Lateef, Prestige.
The Diverse Yusef Lateef, Atlantic, 1970.
Suite Sixteen, Atlantic, 1971.
The Gentle Giant, Rhino, 1972.
Reevaluations: The Impulse Years, Impulse!, 1973.
Hush’N’Thunder, Atlantic, 1973.
The Doctor Is In … And Out, Atlantic, 1976.
Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony, Rhino, 1987.
Nocturne, Atlantic, 1989.
Meditations, Rhino, 1990.
Yusef Lateef’s Encounters, Rhino, 1991.
Every Village Has a Song: The Yusef Lateef Anthology, Rhino, 1994.
(With Donald Byrd) First Flight, Delmark.
(With Charles Mingus) Mingus Revisited, Polygram, 1960.
(With Grant Green) Grantstand, Blue Note, 1961.
(With Cannonball Adderly) The Cannonball Adderly Sextet In New York, Riverside, 1963; Nippon Soul, Riverside, 1963.
(With Louis Hayes) Louis Hayes With Yusef Lateef & Nat Adderly Vee Jay.
(With Doug Watkins) Doug Watkins Quintet: Soulnik, Original Jazz Classics.
Also appears on the compilations Atlantic Jazz 60s: Vol. 2, Atlantic; Atlantic Jazz 70s, Atlantic; and Impulse Jazz: 30 Year Celebration, Impulse!
Stage And Band Arrangements
Trio For Flute, Piano, & Cello.
Duet For Two Flutes.
Flute Book Of Blues #2.
Something Else: The Writings of the Yusef Lateef Quintet. Spheres.
Berliner, Paul F., Thinking Jazz: The Infinite Art, University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon, 1976.
Gillespie, Dizzy, with AI Fraser, To Be Or Not to Bop: Memoirs, Doubleday & Co., 1979.
Gitler, Ira, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition of Jazz in the 1940s, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Thomas, J.C., Chasin’ The Trane: The Music and Mystique Of John Coltrane, Da Capo, 1976.
Michigan Chronicle, March 28, 1953.
Down Beat, October 1, 1970.
Down Beat, April, 1971.
Down Beat, November 6, 1975.
Down Beat, March, 1978.
Keyboard Magazine, November, 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to: Nippon Soul by Orrin Keepnews, 1963; notes to The Cannonball Adderly Sextet in New York, by Orrin Keepnews, 1963; notes to Lateef, by Ira Gitler; notes to The Best Of Grant Green Vol. 1, by Tom Evered, 1993; notes to Every Village Has a Song: The Yusef Lateef Anthology, by Bob Blumenthal, 1994; notes to Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, by Ira Gitler, 1995.