Yusef Lateef, Multi-Instrumentalist with a Borderless Aesthetic, Dies at 93

At the celebratory concert for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters in 2010, when multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef was inducted into this exclusive fraternity, one had to wonder what he thought of the title. Throughout his life, Lateef, who referred to his music as “autophysiopsychic music,” a term he devised to mean “from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self, and also from the heart.” He rejected the term “jazz” for its pejorative associations and limiting implications.

Indeed, after Lateef’s death on Tuesday, at 93, the brief obituary posted on his website acknowledged his 2010 honor as “the National Endowment for the Arts Award.”

Anyone who heard Lateef improvising on flute in duet with percussionist Adam Rudolph at that 2010 NEA celebration—or anyone familiar with his career, which spanned eight decades and never ceased to dig yet deeper and touch yet further—understood that Lateef was indeed a master of whatever he wished to call his art.

Sitting in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in January 2010 for that NEA event, I was struck by both the fire of the man, then 89, and the tenderness of his messages, not to mention how his music still by its very nature and focus seemed a political act bent on upending narrow ideas, not just of “jazz” but also of “national”: Lateef’s was a borderless music.

There’s a nice obituary for Lateef posted on the New England Public Radio site, with links to music and video. It contains this worthwhile biographical data:

Yusef Abdul Lateef was born William Emmanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on October 9, 1920, but spent his formative years in Detroit, where he became a leading figure on the local scene following World War II.  He played with the bands of Lucky Millinder and Dizzy Gillespie in the late 40’s, but remained in Detroit until 1960, when he moved to New York and joined Charles Mingus’s orchestra.  During his brief tenure with Mingus, he was the featured soloist on “Prayer for Passive Resistance.”  If this was all Yusef ever recorded, he’d have earned his renown, but after a few months with Mingus, he joined Cannonball Adderley.  Just as Cannonball made Miles Davis’s group a sextet in 1958, so Yusef led to the expansion of Cannonball’s group to a trumpet/alto/tenor front line.

Yusef’s own recordings for Savoy, Prestige, Riverside, Impulse and Atlantic between 1956 and the mid-70’s are among the most stylistically wide-ranging of that dynamic period.  He was one of the first jazz artists to explore Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, and African music and instrumentation, and in this respect especially he influenced John Coltrane.  Over the past 25 years, Yusef released dozens of discs on his own label, YAL Records, and these ranged from symphonic to duos with Adam Rudolph; small combo jazz feayuring Tom McClung, Avery Sharpe, and Steve McCraven; and his invitationals, two tenor sessions with Von Freeman, Rene McLean, Archie Shepp, and Ricky Ford.

Also, Howard Mandel posted a good remembrance at his Jazz Beyond Jazz blog, with some good, career-spanning video links. You might also read Mandel’s insightful review of Lateef’s performance in April at Brooklyn Roulette, with Rudolph. In it, he makes the following good points:

Although trumpeter Don Cherry is often called the first “world musician” (meaning he absorbed melodies from everywhere, and responded to the fundamentals of music so as to collaborate with anyone, anywhere), Lateef was introducing reeds instruments from foreign lands to audiences of Cannonball Adderley’s sextet in the late 1950s, when Cherry was still emerging from Los Angeles (in company with that other musical universalist, Ornette Coleman). Yusef Lateef embraced Middle Eastern and Eastern musical ideas, incorporated bells and recording studio collage in his practice, has written novellas and essays as well as reflective, imagistic poems, has brought spirituals like “Wade in the Water” (made famous by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1901) into jazz repertoire.

Photo: Courtesy Wikicommons

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