“He was standing next to this other guy who looked like a professor or something,” Jones tells Discogs. “I had never seen a Black man like that in my whole life. The sight of him was just unusual. I was like, ‘Is that real?’”
It wasn’t a mirage; it was the improviser, composer, and multi-reedist Yusef Lateef, playing the blues on an oboe. Jones was in for a lifelong ride.
At first, when Jones tried to get into Lateef, his body of work flummoxed him. Lateef not only played tenor saxophone but also indigenous instruments from far-flung lands: flute, oboe, shehnai, shofar, koto. “There are certain albums that were weird; I didn’t know what was happening,” Jones says. “Like, ‘Why isn’t he playing the saxophone? Why is he playing flute on this record?’ Now, I realize that in my pursuit of freedom, I was looking at the freest person.” Today, Jones is emotional when discussing Lateef, who died at age 93 in 2013.
“He changed my view of Blackness,” explains Jones, who himself is Black. “He helped evolve and grow it. He helped me not look at it so narrowly. He helped me get past spaces of ignorance and not only open my ears and my mind, but my heart to new perspectives and paths.”
Lateef’s 80-plus record discography is the work of a complete artist — a global citizen, a curious mind, a gentle soul. He played “world music” decades before it was a bankable idea. Dip in at random, and you might hear funk, ambient, neoclassical, sound collage, or post-bop. But the gentle giant, who would have turned 100 years old this Friday (October 9), was about more than just his records; he had a transformative effect on people.
“I was a young guy. I had natural, raw talent, but I didn’t have any direction in how to have a musical life,” the tenor giant Sonny Rollins tells Discogs about meeting Lateef early on. “Yusef exemplified all of that to me and sent me on the right track. He was my mentor in so many ways. He had such a good life, and he was inspirational to so many players as a musician and human being.”
Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1925, when he was four, his family moved to the music-filled Paradise Valley neighborhood in Detroit. There, he adopted his father’s chosen surname and became Bill Evans. As Mark Stryker writes in 2019’s Jazz From Detroit, he grew up soaking up the sounds of the city, which is a music hub due to its vibrant Black communities and exceptional music programs in its public schools.
Huddleston attended Miller High School with future greats like the vibraphonist Milt Jackson. In his late teens, influenced by the Alpha and Omega of the tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young, he took up the instrument himself. In 1948, he converted to Islam, and soon after, he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra and took the name Yusef Abdul Lateef. “Being a member of Dizzy’s band for two years was like attending a top-flight musical academy,” Lateef wrote in 2006’s The Gentle Giant: The Autobiography of Yusef Lateef.
In the early 1950s, Lateef worked on a Chrysler assembly line while gigging around town. One day, a Syrian co-worker showed him the Islamic rabab. “He told me that King David, who is mentioned in the Bible, played the [rabab] during his prayers more than 5,000 years ago,” he wrote in his autobiography. From there, he sought out the argol, a double-reed bamboo flute, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In honor of his centenary, Discogs spoke to 14 musicians and authors — some lifelong friends and colleagues, some students he taught, others merely admirers. As you’ll find in the following expressions, those three categories blurred together more often than not. Here are 100 reasons we love Yusef Lateef on his 100th birthday.
1. He embraced indigenous instruments.
Jeff Coffin (multi-reeds): He wasn’t just playing ding-ding-ding, a swing pattern. He explored multiple cultures of music.
Mark Stryker (author): I think there’s no question that his study of Islam broadened his worldview. It opened him up to interest in cultures worldwide — particularly the Middle East and the Near East.
Ralph “Buzzy” Jones (multi-reeds): Back in the 1950s, he had a vast array of indigenous instruments he would play and incorporate in his performances.
Do Yeon Kim (gayageum): Before I moved to America, I Googled “world music” and I found Yusef immediately. I loved the exotic melodies and atmosphere in his music.
Adam Rudolph (percussion): In improvised music, he was one of the first musicians — if not the first — to explore music from other cultures.
Sonny Rollins (tenor sax): He used to make these bamboo flutes.
Herb Boyd (author): He made me a bamboo flute. I’ve got three of them here!
Louis Hayes (drums): Listening to Yusef’s playing on the oboe, wooden flute, and other instruments, I’m very happy that it was recorded.
2. He wasn’t a cultural tourist; he was a pioneer.
R. Jones: He had a valid reason for this. He said it was like going into a buffet. You want to try different things. You want to try different modes of expression.
Stryker: He gravitated toward these instruments, put them within a cultural context, and explored them because they were seeding into his larger understanding of the world.
3. He approached unfamiliar musical traditions respectfully.
Rudolph: He wasn’t so much looking for the other-ness in music, like “This is music from another place.” It was about expanding his palette and his conceptual and process base.
Stryker: He mastered the instrument, but he also learned a broader understanding of the culture around it, which is one of the things that gave him so much depth.
4. And he drew from Western forms skillfully.
Rudolph: His study of Western 20th-century harmonies, starting the 1950s, expanded the resources of inspiration for improvisational musicians.
5. He was against the word “jazz.”
Rudolph: Yusef did not consider himself a jazz musician.
R. Jones: Many musicians were very critical of the terms that were, as John Coltrane said, “foisted” on us. They did not embrace the word “jazz.”
Rudolph: He wanted to feel free, and he did feel free to move to wherever his creative imagination could take him.
R. Jones: We didn’t want to be in a box. We always felt that our music would transcend the characteristics of these labels that were put on us.
6. He coined a new genre.
Rudolph: He called his music “autophysiopsychic.”
7. With it, he took on the dictionary.
Rudolph: He gave a whole lecture at UCLA about it once. He had all the authors of the dictionary sitting around and defining it. Webster’s dictionary defined it as adultery and fornication, and Yusef said, “I don’t know what that has to do with my music.” Then he’d reply to them by playing his saxophone. It was an incredible lecture.
8. But that word encompasses the human experience.
Rudolph: It means music coming from one’s mental, physical, and spiritual self.
R. Jones: Through the particular evolution of autophysiopsychic music, Yusef has mentored and inspired me mentally, physically, and spiritually.
9. On tenor saxophone, he was a force of nature.
Dave Liebman (multi-reeds): He had an old-school, big sound. He had one of the biggest tenor sounds of the ‘60s.
Coffin: He knocked me out. I loved his writing. I loved his expression. I loved his tone.
James Brandon Lewis (tenor sax): That big sound, that tenor sound. When I hear him, I hear that sound.
Stryker: He’s putting so much air and life-force into the horn. He gets these tone manipulations — the low barking register, the overtone.
Lewis: I dig a more open sound, in terms of what’s informing your oral cavity. Suppose it’s an o sound, an e sound, or an ah. He had an open sound similar to Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Heath.
10. He was up there with the greats of the instrument.
11. Exhibit A: Into Something.
Stryker: I have a real fondness for the record Into Something, which he recorded in 1961 for Riverside with an all-Detroit band — Barry Harris on piano, Herman Wright on bass, Elvin Jones on drums. Half of the record is a quartet with piano. Half of it is a trio. The sound that Yusef gets on tenor is so big and roomy.
12. He didn’t need to be flashy to make a point.
Stryker: He’s not flying through the changes like, let’s say, Sonny Rollins would, but he’s making a statement.
Boyd: He had his own style in terms of overblowing and playing vibrato. He could play speedier-tempo things as well, but he was a bit slower.
Stryker: When you’re young, you get dazzled by people who have a lot of technique and can play the hell out of chord changes and have a certain kind of flash to them. But when you get older, you begin to listen a little deeper to someone like Yusef.
Liebman: He didn’t run a lot. You know, using your fingers and playing fast. He didn’t do that. He was very slow and methodical.
Kim: My favorite Dr. Lateef recording was a live performance with Ahmad Jamal at the Olympia in 2012. I love how they support, respect, and listen to each other; their synergy is great. Ahmad provided a lot of space for Dr. Lateef to explore, and backed him so gracefully. This attitude can only happen when musicians really trust each other. I love that so much.
13. He rooted himself in the blues.
Barry Harris (piano): To me, he was the greatest blues tenor player in the whole world. I would hate to see any cat — Sonny Stitt, any of them — go up against Yusef, playing some blues. They could just forget it.
Liebman: He was very blues-oriented. He comes from that tradition in which you had to play the blues. You had to find some kind of way of doing it that was convincing.
Stryker: The sound of his tenor was so deep and rich and expressive, and so rooted in the blues.
Harris: He made me so mad, man! I’d say, “You’re the greatest blues player and you won’t play the blues no more! You’re going all Eastern on me!” We had a falling-out about this, but that was the way it was.
14. He wrote the book on music theory.
Liebman: He wrote one of the best books on music called The Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. It’s a big, thick repository of scales, intervals, and tunes.
Lewis: That book kept me sane and motivated to continue to push and strive.
Coffin: He’s giving us scales and interpolations of those scales from different cultures from around the world.
Liebman: You can turn anywhere in that book, and you can get something out of it, even if only for sight-reading. Any page will knock you out.
15. And he wrote it for everybody.
Siegel: He could have written that for an academic journal, and it could have sat on a shelf somewhere, but he wrote it with the intention of musicians using it. And a lot of people use it.
Rudolph: It filters down, and whatever you’re able to hold in your cup, it’s there to be shared. That’s how the music stays alive.
16. He was sincere in all his pursuits.
Rollins: His desire to learn, to study and research, was an inspiration to me.
Coffin: Authenticity was important to him. He was very authentic in his pursuits.
Rudolph: The more he could learn about other kinds of music, it continued to keep him energized and expanded and inspired.
17. He usually mastered what he learned.
Boyd: He had every kind of musical instrument you could think of around his house. A lot of people have instruments, but they don’t know how to play them. They can get a sound out of them, and that’s the extent of it. He more than “got” the sound — he got the full expression out of each particular instrument.
18. He was a universalist.
Boyd: The universality he brought to his music is one thing that makes him unique among all those people coming out of Detroit.
19. He was decades ahead of his time.
Kim: Non-Western instruments have different tunings, which can sound dissonant or uncomfortable to Western music listeners. However, Yusef boldly used non-Western tunings for texture and color.
Coffin: He was into world music in the ‘50s, well before Coltrane got into Indian music and that kind of thing.
Boyd: He was into world music long before they called it world music.
20. He could play one note memorably.
Stryker: He was the kind of player that could play just a couple of notes or one long note and carry an incredible load of meaning.
21. He sometimes played straighter than one might think.
Darius Jones (alto sax): There are times where he’s just making straight R&B music!
22. But his body of work spans musique concrète.
23. And “out” music.
Stryker: When you get to the later years, there’s free music where he expands on the non-Western ideas he had early on.
24. And blends of various folk music.
Stryker: There are things where the improvisation is in a pan-African, pan-Middle-Eastern, pan-Asian environment.
D. Jones: Blues music is American folk music. To me, Yusef embodies the idea of folk music.
25. He made unconventional use of the oboe.
Liebman: He played oboe and flute, and he was quite good at those instruments. Of course, that was unusual in those days.
Lewis: Oboe wasn’t a thing you played in jazz. But that probably influenced generations after him.
Liebman: My wife plays the oboe. It’s not a walk in the park; I’ll tell you that.
D. Jones: Live at Pep’s is like a blues album. He’s playing oboe and flute, but it still takes you there.
Harris: Yusef had a tone, and when he went to the oboe, it was Yusef. When he went to the flute, it was Yusef. No matter what he did, it was Yusef, and you could tell it. He had a special sound.
26. He was part of the Detroit story.
Stryker: Yusef grew up in the heart of the African-American community here in Detroit. Music saturated that community.
Boyd: I went to Northwestern High School, and it was pretty much like a jazz conservatory.
R. Jones: All the Detroit public schools had incredible music programs. They were putting out great musicians, like Milt Jackson and Kenny Burrell from Miller High School; Donald Byrd and Ron Carter from Cass Technical High School; Roy Brooks, Charles McPherson, and Wendell Harrison from Northwestern High School.
Stryker: Yusuf’s family lived above a theater on Hastings Street, a key commercial avenue that bisected the African-American neighborhoods Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. He would sit in the front row and soak up the sound of these big bands. That’s how he heard the great tenor men of the day, like Lester Young, “Chu” Berry, and Coleman Hawkins. You could almost say he listened to these people in his living room.
Harris: Yusef and John Coltrane came to my house. I was teaching these two young cats. I was teaching something that hadn’t been taught. I didn’t believe in twos — two to five. I didn’t believe in that kind of stuff. I believed a five over two is just a chord on the fifth of the five. So how can you play two into five when two is five? People still do it right — they say you’ve got to play the two into five. I think that’s bullshit. Because two is five. This is the kind of stuff I was teaching, and Yusef came. Coltrane came. Joe Henderson came. Hugh Lawson came. All of them came to Detroit! I recognize now that they must have heard about me all over the country. Not that I even thought about this until late in my life. They must have come because they heard about this young piano player.
27. He and his peers had an unmistakable style.
Boyd: When he took his band to New York, Thelonious Monk was in the club, heard him play, and said, “Detroit musicians have got a whole different tempo!” You’re talking about Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Hugh Lawson, and Terry Pollard. You had some of the finest piano players Detroit ever produced.
Harris: You notice he had a sound. A lot of cats nowadays just play straight. They don’t work on having a sound of their own. They don’t play long tones. They don’t use vibrato. Vibrato is your identification. It’s almost like your fingerprint. We know who you are.
28. And Detroit was his launchpad to new dimensions.
Stryker: While Yusef is a quintessential product of the Detroit story, he also traveled further from his roots than any other musician from Detroit. The trajectory of his career took him further than any other Detroit musician, which is interesting.
29. Some of his music is akin to science fiction.
D. Jones: I’ve been watching Lovecraft Country. I feel like Yusef’s music would fit right inside of that. 1984 is a crazy album. The way it starts and ends makes you feel like you’re on a sci-fi adventure at times, but at the same time, a Black one.
30. He tore it up with Cannonball Adderley.
Liebman: He was a wonderful sideman to Cannonball and his brother, Nat Adderley, in the Cannonball Adderley Sextet. The three-horn thing was great. They were loyal to the blues. They had several distinct styles, especially blues playing — honking, screaming, real blues.
Hayes: He added so much to Cannon’s band. With Cannonball, we did a lot of traveling together in cars during that time. When you take together musically, you get to know a person very well.
31. Dizzy Gillespie, too.
Rollins: He was an inspiring musician in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. When my buddies and I saw him play with Dizzy Gillespie, before he changed his name to a Muslim name, he sounded great. All us musicians who met him appreciated his playing.
32. He was John Coltrane’s peer and equal.
Coffin: Coltrane’s soprano playing is very much in line with the shenai and other Middle Eastern double-reed instruments. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of that came from Yusef’s friendship and mentorship.
33. His Repository includes a mysterious Trane drawing.
Siegel: At the beginning of The Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, with no explanation, you’ll see a diagram Coltrane gave to Yusef.
D. Jones: I remember picking up that book and diving into it. There’s John Coltrane’s circle-of-fifths matrix.
Coffin: There’s a hand drawing Coltrane did on the front of Yusef’s book that goes through this heavy harmonic progression Coltrane was into.
D. Jones: It was like going inside of a universe. It felt like some Lord of the Rings shit!
34. He had one foot in academia.
Lewis: Sometimes, you have conversations where it’s like, “This person’s a player, and this person’s an academic.” With Yusef Lateef, those worlds are blurred.
R. Jones: Yusef inspired me to get my bachelor’s degree. He encouraged me to teach and to pass the knowledge I have on to the next generation, which is what I’ve tried to do on a lot of different levels.
Liebman: He was interested in the scholarly aspect of the music. It wasn’t like that was common in those days. There were no jazz schools — very few in the United States.
35. But you don’t need a higher education to enjoy him.
D. Jones: To me, it’s not intellectual. When you put the academic cap on it, it’s all this shit and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Siegel: He didn’t hole up in an ivory tower.
D. Jones: Yusef plays music. His music is for the people.
36. He was a phenomenal teacher.
Siegel: I’ve interviewed 10 to 15 of his former students. He profoundly impacted their lives, and they’re still learning lessons from him.
37. His chosen name carries power.
“I went to court and had my name legally changed. I took Yusef after the prophet Joseph, and Lateef means gentle, amiable, and incomprehensible,” Lateef wrote in The Gentle Giant.
38. He had a bottomless range of interests.
Boyd: Yusef was very much into mathematics. He was very much into world religions. He was very much into language. How to put together an autobiography — I’ve learned some lessons even in that!
39. He was a multidisciplinary artist.
Stryker: He wrote poetry and short stories and did exhibition-quality drawings of trees.
Rudolph: He was a wonderful artist. He wrote two novels, wrote plays, and painted.
40. By any measure, he was enlightened.
Siegel: He was an academic. He had a doctorate in education.
Stryker: At various points in his life, he used education and concentrated areas of study to reinvigorate his art and ideas. It happened in the ‘50s, it happened in the ‘60s, and it happened in the early ‘80s. I think that’s important.
Liebman: He was multi-leveled, multifaceted. He was a very nice and educated man.
41. He was a liberated soul.
D. Jones: To me, his story is about the idea of freedom. You’re listening to someone being free.
42. He was radically open.
Oran Etkin (clarinet): His openness was very inspiring. He was very interested in discussing philosophical and religious things.
Rudolph: This attitude of openness, freedom, experimentation, projecting your spirit into whatever sound you generate and share, all those things came through the oral tradition, and academia can’t really transmit them.
Kim: Dr. Lateef was open-minded and unafraid about incorporating new sounds into his music. Often when we adopt opinions that music “must be a certain way,” we shut ourselves off from unfamiliar musical experiences, which sometimes are the most enriching. I hope all modern musicians can adopt an open-minded attitude like Dr. Lateef.
43. His discography is oceanic as a result.
D. Jones: You don’t know what you’re going to get if you put on a Yusef Lateef album. It could be anything, and that’s what’s so hip about it.
Liebman: In the ‘70s or ‘80s, his work was packed full of good things. It was a candy basket that never stopped being filled.
44. And he earned every drop of it.
Stryker: His commitment to always learning new things and exploring new ideas — the older you get, the more you begin to see how profound that is.
45. You can engage with it on a complex level.
D. Jones: Is it challenging and uncomfortable at times? Yes. But you’re looking at a person who is being free and themselves. You don’t know what you’re going to get, but the thing is if you’re open, free, and down to go on that journey? Man! It’s going to fuck you up.
46. Or a simple one.
D. Jones: Just look at Yusef’s music from the perspective of Black American music and look at him as a Black American composer, musician, and academic. That’s what he is. You’re looking at an individual who embraced the fullness of Blackness.
Kim: His compositions and improvisations have a melodic storytelling quality, which I appreciate. He plays in a manner that feels understandable and comfortable to the audience, which builds an emotional connection. This approach, I think, is the vehicle through which he successfully introduced non-Western musical influences.
47. Artistically, he has everything you could need.
Jones: Yusef is a planet unto himself. You can fly to Yusef Lateef Planet and just hang. Everything is there. There’s water, earth, vegetation, the sky, clouds, wind, birds, other humanoid figures, fish, mammals, and there may be some magic and alchemy.
48. To know him was to love him.
R. Jones: I think Ornette Coleman once said, “Yusef Lateef has no enemies.”
49. He had a spiritual presence.
Stryker: Because he was a Muslim, had a shaved head, was a big man, the way he dressed, his whole countenance was of this man of real spiritualism and a seeker of truth.
Hayes: His religion had to do with his music because of who he was. It was part of his life, so I’m sure it did. But I can’t speak to that. His religion was his own personal religion.
Rollins: He exemplified everything good about humanity. I’m not a Muslim like he was, but to me, all that stuff doesn’t matter. He could have been Christian or Buddhist or Muslim. To me, he was a good human being.
Rudolph: I considered him to be a radiant being, and he became more and more radiant over the 25 years that I knew him.
Rollins: He just exemplified goodness. You got a spiritual feeling being around him. He certainly exuded so much of that all the time.
50. That extended to how he treated other musicians.
R. Jones: We observed how he reacted not only on the bandstand but off the bandstand. He always acted in the highest spiritual way, dealing with people he didn’t know. The way he carried himself was very influential to us. I never heard Yusef critique anyone’s music negatively. Ever.
51. And how he treated women.
R. Jones: I used to wonder, “Why do you bow to women?” He would not allow women to embrace him. He said, “My wife has that honor.” He would bow to women. Bowing to a person is the highest form of humility that you can do. I observed this and began to look at it the same way and understand.
52. He was humble at all times.
Rudolph: His studiousness relates to being humble. If you feel like, “I know it all, I have my way to do it, and that’s that,” that’s the end, right? But if you’re humble, you can say, “Wow, I can always learn more from somebody else.” I consider him my mentor, but he treated me like a peer.
53. But he was no pushover.
“He radiated peace but took care of business. When a club owner once said he couldn’t afford to pay the band, Lateef picked up the cash register and walked into the back office and refused to leave until he got paid,” Stryker wrote in Jazz From Detroit.
54. He had unshakeable integrity.
Siegel: We all have friends who will say nice things about us, but I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him.
55. Much of that had to do with his religious beliefs.
Hayes: Yusef was such a warm gentleman. He was such a dedicated person to his religion and himself.
56. He was willing to take heat for his principles.
Siegel: When he was recording for Atlantic, that was a high-profile label, and someone from there got him on the David Sanborn show Night Music. It was a Tonight Show kind of thing, but it focused on music and the arts. Yusef was one of the guests; he had an album coming out, and they were promoting it. Right before he was supposed to go on, he looked over the contract and saw that Michelob beer was one of the sponsors of the show. He said, “I can’t go on. I can’t do the show because you’re promoting alcohol.” Sanborn’s people were scrambling and said, “We’ll scroll text along the bottom reading that Yusef Lateef doesn’t endorse Michelob beer.” He stuck to his guns and said, “No, I’m not going on.” Which, I’m sure, pissed off the people at Atlantic Records and impacted their bottom line, and I’m sure it pissed off David Sanborn’s people because they had a hole in their schedule. So, they might have been mad at him.
57. And those principles elevated his art form.
D. Jones: When he said, “We shouldn’t be playing in clubs or basements,” he was trying to take the music and put it on another level. To me, it’s a way of trying to help others to see the music from a different perspective, and perspective is everything. He’s saying that if you change the venue, and the person is sitting there like they’re listening to a symphony orchestra, their perspective on what’s happening is going to change.
58. That said, he wasn’t a scold; he was hilarious.
Rollins: He had a sense of humor. We used to have a lot of fun telling jokes and everything.
Rudolph: Things would just crack him up. He had a dry, wry sense of humor, and he enjoyed humor too. There were times on the road where we’d be laughing and laughing at funny stories and things like that.
59. He was a terrific host.
Rollins: I met his wife; he met my wife. We’d been to each others’ homes over the years. He was always gentle and kind and so generous.
Boyd: He had sensitivity and respect for other people. A sense of warmth and gentleness, just like his name, Lateef.
60. He addressed everyone as a sibling.
Coffin: At UMass Amherst, everybody I know who knew him called him “Brother Yusef.” He would call everyone “brother” or “sister.”
61. Even people much younger than him.
Etkin: He used to call me “Brother Oran.” He was many years my elder and my mentor, and there’s no reason he would need to call me “brother,” but that’s the way he saw things and talked to people.
62. He listened before he spoke.
Etkin: He was somebody that made you very aware he was listening. In my mind, the most important thing a musician does is listen.
63. He was radically accepting.
Coffin: He was embracing of everybody, which is what Islam is. When Malcolm X went to Mecca, he had an epiphany. At the end of his autobiography, he said he realized he was praying with people of all colors and all nations. He realized everybody were his brothers and sisters. He had to renounce Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims because true Islam is embracing of everybody. As little as I know about Islam, I think Yusef embodied that. He embodied that in his spirit and the way he was giving to other people.
64. He was a voracious reader.
Rudolph: He was always interested in learning new things — not only in music but all kinds of things. I remember telling him that my father-in-law was a scholar of John Dewey, and he was so interested in Dewey. I sent him a copy of Art as Experience, and he read the whole thing.
65. In his craft, he was a perfectionist.
Boyd: He was very much concerned about seriously learning what that music was all about. He wanted to perfect the tone, performance, the technical aspects, the mystical aspects of it.
66. But he never claimed the results were perfect.
Coffin: Because The Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns was handwritten, there are a few little mistakes in it, which gives it feeling to me. I’d be going through it, and I’d be like, OK, this pattern is symmetrical, but all of a sudden, it changes. It might be a half-step off or something. I thought, well, you know, everyone makes mistakes, man — big deal. If you’re playing through it and you find something, fix it. Do the homework, rather than saying, “Oh, there’s a mistake here! It sucks!”
67. He lived modestly.
D. Jones: His office was this little room down in a basement. It was a tiny space.
68. He was inquisitive.
Coffin: I’m assuming that part of his interest in Middle Eastern music was from his conversion to Islam, although it probably wasn’t just the religious aspect. He was probably like, “I wonder what their music is like!” I think he was a curious person. When he converted to Islam, I can only assume that he got into the culture of music also.
69. He showed people who they were.
Boyd: He would ask me a lot of questions. “Who are you?” “What are you about?” I would ask him questions, but he’d turn it around and ask me questions. “What are you doing? What’s your exercise? What’s your latest project?”
Rudolph: Yusef used to say to me, “Brother Adam, we’re evolutionists.”
70. He’s comparable to great spirits throughout history.
Rudolph: People talk about these radiant beings like Hazrat Inayat Khan, Lama Govinda, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Rumi, and the Dalai Lama that we hear or read about, but he was a person we knew who was like that.
71. He was a wholly Black thinker.
D. Jones: This will sound like an intense thing to say, but to me, Yusef Lateef’s music is the epitome of Blackness. It shows how vast and diverse Blackness is. To me, he embodies this intellectualism, but also a connection to the blues is there, overtly. Then, there’s that connection to the cosmos and going beyond, and that street thing is in him as well.
Stryker: He recorded in every imaginable African-American vernacular that there was — bebop, post-bop, blues, gospel, R&B, fusion, free, you name it.
72. He’s a galvanizing force to Black educators.
D. Jones: As a teacher, I want to make sure that I’m representing full-throated, full-bodied Blackness. Not Black from one perspective, but Black from a multitude of perspectives.
73. He wrote classical music.
Stryker: Yusef wrote concert works in the classical tradition. He wrote symphonies, string quartets, solo piano pieces, sonata-like pieces, duets, trios, and chamber music.
74. And he was terrific at it.
D. Jones: What attracts me to Yusef’s music is that you hear that depth. The beginning of 1984 sounds like a symphony orchestra, the way it works.
Stryker: There’s one record called The Centaur and the Phoenix, where he’s playing some extended compositional works by Charles Mills, a contemporary classical composer with interest in jazz. So they’re almost like third-stream works. He’s playing oboe; he’s playing the flute; there’s just so much going on.
75. We can appreciate that the classical world unfairly marginalized him.
D. Jones: Check it out: Yusef played the oboe, and the thing is, Black folks couldn’t participate in the classical world at all. Billy Strayhorn, Nina Simone, and Eric Dolphy were all individuals who desired to participate in the classical realm. Because they were Black, there was no way in, no opportunity, nothing for them to participate in that universe. The very few [that did get in], like Marian Anderson, were marginalized to an enormous level. It wasn’t a logical thing to do. The classical world is white supremacist in many ways.
76. But he forged ahead anyway.
D. Jones: This is a mindset of a very aware, knowledgeable Black individual. He’s saying, “I will not be made to be smaller because of my surroundings.”
77. To disregard him was classical music’s loss.
D. Jones: I say this to my students all the time: “Imagine if Black people didn’t constantly get interrupted. Imagine if they were able to walk into that world and present their work, develop it, and grow.” Our society is creating a narrowing effect. We’re losing out on a lot of beauty because of foolishness.
78. He shows these problems also extend to academia.
D. Jones: If you had Black professors, Black deans, and Black presidents of universities, especially inside the musical realm, you would start to draw more Black students. My story is a perfect example. Yusef Lateef made me aware of something I didn’t know existed. He was a catalyst for me to pursue the work that I’m doing now. You have to have examples, and they can’t be examples that aren’t present or seen.
79. But he left us the tools to fix it.
D. Jones: When you look at his books, philosophies, interviews, and teachings, he’s giving you information on how to do this. He’s teaching you about it. His records are forms of communication that can help you understand how to start to dismantle these things.
80. He never stopped developing.
Stryker: One of the things that’s fascinating about Yusef is that the degree of experimentalism in his music picks up as he gets older. It doesn’t diminish. So think about that — there are very few musicians like that where the older they get, the more experimental they get.
81. He inspires others to self-educate.
Lewis: Yusef Lateef inspires me. I’m reading a lot of molecular biology books and about George Washington Carver. I’m working on some poetry.
D. Jones: He loved nature; I’m one of those people too. I draw a lot from nature.
Lewis: The number of mediums he crosses over into, like literature and visual art, has influenced my work. I gave up on the flute, though.
82. Late in life, he rowed uncharted creative waters.
Stryker: To the extent that Yusef is underrated, I think because the last period of his life was so gargantuan and the music goes in so many directions. It’s so far removed from what we think of as conventional jazz. It’s hard to get your arms around it. You have to sit down and spend some time with it. It’s not a casual listen, and Yusef’s career is not casual.
83. He redefined tradition.
Rudolph: We never got lost in the sense of our own identity. Yusef used to say, “The tradition is to sound like yourself.” You’re tuning in to your voice and putting your music in resonance with your life experience and your environment.
84. He reminded us what soul means.
Rudolph: One of the first books he wrote was How to Improvise Soul Music. He didn’t mean how to perform soul-R&B. It’s soul music, coming from the soul. He always put heart, soul, and deep feeling into his music.
85. He collaborated in livewire ways.
Rudolph: He received a commission from the Rockefeller Foundation to write a piece and asked me to co-compose it with him. He decided it was for 12 musicians, and he had this idea to choose six instruments, and he would write so many bars, tell me how many bars he wrote, and the approximate tempo, like slow, medium, fast. Then he asked me to write for the other same number of bars at a similar tempo. We didn’t hear what the other person did until we were at rehearsal. What an innovative and courageous idea! The surrealists used to do that. They used to paint on each others’ paintings, and they called it Exquisite Corpse.
86. And he could flip the script.
R. Jones: I learned so much about music, about what not to play, how to approach music. Sometimes he would give suggestions about playing something backward or inside-out.
87. His eclecticism wasn’t jarring.
D. Jones: The thing is, you can have Ligeti and all these other guys check out African cultures and bring those influences into their music, but when a Black person does it, it’s considered avant-garde or unusual.
88. His body of work is nourishing.
D. Jones: To me, Yusef is a full-course meal. He’s beyond only apple pie. You get your vegetables, meat, protein, carbs, water, and dessert.
89. Which means it’s substantial and never junk food.
D. Jones: It’s not about what I want. It’s about what I need and what goodness can be fed to my soul.
90. His music is never egotistical.
Coffin: It’s not about “Dig me.” It’s about “Dig the music.”
91. That’s why it gets less attention.
Siegel: Yusuf was under the radar. Even though he won a Grammy and was an NEA Jazz Master, he wasn’t playing in clubs. He led a very quiet life.
92. But his profile is worth raising today.
Rudolph: When people listen to his music, it’s alive if they find a place within themselves where it resonates inside of them and becomes something living, not just entertainment.
Rollins: Good people like Yusef never get enough notoriety. His life is going to be so important.
93. Understanding him begins with listening to him.
Siegel: Listening to his music is the best way to get to know him. To get to know him, I’d pick a couple of albums from every decade, from the 1950s to the 2010s, and start there.
Hayes: The music speaks for itself. All a person has to do is listen to the music. That will say enough as to the kind of relationship we had. Listen to the music, and that will say everything.
94. And you can spend a lifetime in his world if you want.
D. Jones: I don’t get tired of Yusef like I do some other artists because he’s willing to move in a different fashion at all times.
95. We can mirror his qualities.
Lewis: When someone like Yusef Lateef leaves the kind of body of work that he did, it should only inspire us to continue to peel back our onion within our own experience.
96. Like him, we can fulfill our creative potential.
Lewis: I don’t think everyone is afforded the opportunity to present who they are in so many different mediums.
97. We can rethink the way we teach.
D. Jones: He is part of the matrix that informs my perspective on how to change the paradigm and the world of academia.
98. We can be kind to others like he was.
Rollins: He was one of the best human beings I’ve met in my life. He was such a good person.
99. And leave an immense impression as a result.
Rollins: I must have done something right in my previous life to have had a chance to meet an individual like Yusef.
100. Brother Yusef lives.
Hayes: Brother Yusef was an amazing person. What a gentleman. We had a warm, magnificent relationship together.
Lewis: God, I wish I would have met him. I would have thousands of questions.
Hayes: I hope he’s having a wonderful journey. I hope he had a great journey here, and I hope he’s having a great journey now. All the best to you, my brother, Yusef Lateef.
D. Jones: That, for me, is Yusef Lateef. That’s what makes him beautiful. I don’t know how to simplify it any more.