Yusef Lateef

Saxophonist, Flutist, Oboist, Composer, Educator
Portrait of man holding flute.

Photo by Tom Pich


"I extend heartfelt thanks to the NEA and all, past and present, who have extended kindness to me."

A virtuoso on the traditional jazz instruments of saxophone and flute, Yusef Lateef also brought a broad spectrum of sounds to his music through his mastery of such Middle Eastern and Asian reed instruments as the bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, argol, sarewa, and taiwan koto. A major force on the international musical scene for more than seven decades, he was one of the first to bring a world music approach to traditional jazz.

Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and moved with his family to Detroit in 1925. In Detroit's fertile musical environment, Lateef established personal and musical relationships with such jazz legends as Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson, Barry Harris, the Jones brothers (Hank, Thad and Elvin), and Lucky Thompson. By the time he was 18 years old, he was touring professionally with swing bands led by Lucky Millinder, Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page, and Ernie Fields, performing under the name Bill Evans. In 1949, he was invited to perform with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. At that time he converted to Islam and took the name by which he is now known: Yusef Lateef.

From 1955–59 he led a quintet in Detroit that included Ernie Farrell, Curtis Fuller, Louis Hayes, and Hugh Lawson. During that time, he began recording under his own name for Savoy Records. In 1960, he moved to New York City and joined Charles Mingus' band. He then performed and recorded with Cannonball Adderley from 1962-64. His albums as leader on Impulse! (1962-66) and Atlantic (1967-76) are considered some of his most exciting and diverse recordings.

As a composer, Lateef compiled a body of work for soloists, small ensembles, chamber and symphony orchestras, stage bands, and choirs. His extended works were performed by orchestras in Germany and the United States -- including the Atlanta, Augusta, and Detroit symphony orchestras -- and the Symphony of the New World. In 1987, he won a Grammy Award for his recording Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony, on which Lateef played all the instruments.

Lateef held a bachelor's degree in music and a master's degree in music education from the Manhattan School of Music. From 1987 to 2002, he was a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, from which he was awarded a doctorate in education.

Lateef performed extensively throughout the United States, Europe, Japan, and Africa. His touring ensembles included master musicians such as Kenny Barron, Albert "Tootie" Heath, and Cecil McBee.

Selected Discography

Eastern Sounds, Prestige/OJC, 1961
Live at Pep's, Impulse!, 1964
The Doctor is In...and Out, Atlantic, 1976
The African-American Epic Suite, Act, 1993
Yusef Lateef and Adam Rudolph, In the Garden, Meta/YAL, 2003

Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
September 22, 2009
Edited by Don Ball


NEA: Can you recall some of your earliest musical memories?

Yusef Lateef: Yes. I remember hearing my father, may God bless his soul. I used to work with him at a factory, the bedspring factory. And as we worked, he would sing sometimes. He had a beautiful tenor voice. And I've never forgotten. He would sing songs like "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me," "Climb Upon My Knee," "Sonny Boy." And he was not a trained singer. But he had an essence, a quality that was very beautiful. My mother played piano by ear. I remember that and, of course, I heard people like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

NEA: And did you hear them on recordings, or did you hear them as they came through Detroit?

Yusef Lateef:  I heard them both ways. In Detroit, every Monday there would be a out-of-town itinerant band -- could be Jimmy Lunsford this Monday, Tiny Bradshaw the next Monday, Coleman Hawkins the next, Earl Hines next, Billy Eckstine next. And this went on for weeks. And I would just stand in front of the band, stand and listen to these great musicians. Besides that, they had what they call the Paradise Theater, where an out-of-town band would be for six days out of each week. So I was fortunate to have heard these great musicians. I heard Chu Berry with Cab Calloway, I've never forgotten it. Don Byas -- I think he was with Andy Kirk at that time. And I heard Dick Wilson with Andy Kirk. They had such a beautiful sound. This went on from a teenager to now.

NEA: And what led you to pick up a saxophone?

Yusef Lateef: Well, you know, I lived upstairs over a theater in Detroit. And they had a house band in the stage show. There was a trumpet player named Buddy Bill and a tenor saxophonist named Al Farrish. I lived upstairs and I would come to the theater, and I would sit right in front of the bandstand. And I was fascinated by what I heard. And I said that's what I want to do. I wanted to play trumpet. So I told my dad. My dad said, "Well, I don't like that bump that trumpet players acquire on the lip." I said, "Well, then I'd like to have a saxophone then." So he said, "Well, okay. You get half of the money, and I'll give you the rest of it." I was 12 years old then. So by the time I was 18, I saved up $40. Six years. And there was a saxophone for $80 downtown. I told my dad; he gave me the other $40. I bought the saxophone when I was 18, and I started to learn to play it at high school.

NEA: And you had never played an instrument before that?

Yusef Lateef: No, never played an instrument before that. I listened as much as possible. And that was an inspiration to study with John Cabrera, the music teacher. And I happened to be in the music class the day that he suggested Milt Jackson play the vibraphones. And obviously he became one of the world's great vibraphonists.


NEA: Yeah, Detroit, there were so many gifted musicians there. Did you guys gravitate towards each other?

Yusef Lateef: Yeah, well, that was the nature of musicians who played this music. They would gravitate and study together. Sonny Stitt came down from Saginaw. He was in Detroit a great deal. And Thad Jones, Hank Jones came down from Saginaw. The McKinney Cotton Pickers had a local band there at the hotel. I lived in a place called The Valley, and I was fortunate enough to be in the house band there playing with Amos Woodard. You perhaps never heard of him. And one of the great things that happened for me was I got in the Matthew Rucker band. It was 13 pieces. It's called Matthew Rucker and the 13 Spirits of Swing. It was the high school band. Rucker graduated before I did, but I joined his band. After studying for a year, I was able to read the music, thank God. And we left high school for a year. And we traveled all the way to Florida. The Whitman Sisters was part of the show we had. I met George Kelly, a tenor player in Miami who's hailed as the Coleman Hawkins of Florida. In Tampa, Florida, I met a pianist named 88-Keys and he could play "Tea for Two" with one hand and "Honeysuckle Rose" with the other one simultaneously. That was fascinating to hear.

NEA: It sounds like your early musical experiences gave you the opportunity to travel.

Yusef Lateef: Yeah, I was only 19, and I traveled for a year.

NEA: When did you first go to New York City?

Yusef Lateef: That happened when I was about 23 years old. Lucky Thompson recommended me to this band. I joined the band in New York. And I got there two weeks before I was to start playing. And it so happened that, the tenor's place that I was to take, he was supposed to go with Cab Calloway, and he didn't go. So there I was in New York and the bandleader paid me for two weeks' pay. And I stayed in New York.

NEA: So did you play?

Yusef Lateef: I didn't play with the band. So staying there in New York, I met Roy Eldridge and I played with Roy Eldridge. And Ernie Fields, who had an itinerant band out of Tulsa, I joined them, and I left New York. I played about a year with this territory band. After that, I went to Chicago because the musical environment was so inviting. You had people like Lank Keys, King Kolax, Gene Ammons. And I stayed there for two years or more. One night after coming from a job in Chicago, I met Teddy Edwards, the drummer with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy's big band had just returned from Europe. And James Moody didn't come with him. He had a hit, "Moody's Mood for Love." Ted Edwards said, "Diz needs a tenor player." So I said, "Give me his phone number." I called him in New York, and he sent me a ticket to join the band in San Francisco.


NEA: Had Dizzy heard you, or did he do it just on recommendation?

Yusef Lateef:  Out of recommendation. But, you know, news gets around. I was in Chicago for two years, and every morning myself, Sonny Stitt, and Buddy Butler, a drummer, would go to [saxophonist] Howard Martin's house and practice, to sharpen our craft. So the word got around. I suppose. I supposed that's why Diz called me. And I was so happy to work with a great musician like Dizzy Gillespie.

NEA: You played with him for about a year?

Yusef Lateef: Close to two years.

NEA: And what was the experience like? What was Dizzy like as a bandleader?

Yusef Lateef: He was highly innovative. He was a teacher also. In fact, he told me one day, he said, "I could go to Harvard and give them a lesson in rhythm, and that one lesson would last them for a year." He was serious about it.

I would be playing a piece with him, and we'd get to the end of a phrase. There'd be a whole note, and in a certain tempo that note ends after four beats. And so I'm noticing that I'd get to end of a phrase and the rest of the saxophones are still playing. And John Brown would look out one of his eyes at me. I was to his left. He didn't say anything. I caught on what was going on. And what it was, Dizzy was in front of the band. And he had cues. He would telegraph phrases which would shape the sounds that we were playing.

In fact, that period, it became not popular just to do a lot of talking. The idea was to get your craft together, discover something that no one else did. Some of the musician knew that. That's why Lester Young sounded different than Coleman Hawkins playing the same instrument. That's why Charlie Parker sounded different than Johnny Hodges playing the same instrument. The idea was to find your own voice, and that's why we remember certain people. That's why Stan Getz sounded different than Zoot Sims or Don Byas, if you will.

There's an old story perhaps you heard about. Coleman Hawkins played with Fletcher Henderson, and in 1934, Coleman Hawkins went to Europe and he started hanging out with people like Madame Boulanger and Picasso. In fact, he wrote a piece called "Picasso." So after he left Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, they hired Lester Young. So, some of the musicians, they couldn't register Lester Young after Coleman. So Fletcher Henderson's wife brought [a record that Hawkins had played on] to breakfast one morning and said to Lester, "Listen to this." Lester said, "That's not me. I can't sound like that. That's not me."

So the me was what they were driving at, and those people we remember. They became themselves.

I remember one adage. A lady listened about ten minutes to Miles Davis. And when he came off the stand, she said, "Miles, I don't understand what you're playing." He said to her, "I don't expect you to understand in ten minutes what has taken me 20 years to develop." You know, that kind of thing. And that shows you how much blood, sweat, and tears went into the development of the music. And there are people still continuing that to this day I believe.

NEA: Do you think it's harder for young musicians to find their own voice?

Yusef Lateef:  I think there is one problem. They're bombarded with so much information these days. We only had 78 records. It could confuse them for a while, because they hear so many beautiful things. But the fact is one's own voice is not heard anywhere else. So they can't look outside of themselves. It's a challenge to be yourself. It takes a lot of courage. Because there are people who'll do this. It's a challenge.


NEA: And it brings to mind your theory. Tell me what it's called.

Yusef Lateef: Autophysiopsychic Music. Autophysiopsychic Music is music from one's physical, mental, and spiritual self, and also from the heart. It has these qualities.

NEA: And is it easier to play this music as improvised music rather than, say, classical music?

Yusef Lateef:  I have a thing about improvised music. The word "improvise" means to do something without previous preparation. But this music isn't developed without preparation. John Coltrane used to practice 13, 14 hours a day. That's a lot of preparation. So if that word were true, you could give a carpenter a saxophone in the morning; he could play "Cherokee" in B natural in the afternoon. But it doesn't happen like that. If you mean he plays something for the first time, you're calling that improvisation, probably people do come forth with things you never heard before. But that's not improvisation. Because too much preparation goes into it.

If I play someone else's music, what I'm doing, in my thinking, is I'm doing an autophysiopsychic interpretation of their composition.

You know, there was an editorial in the local paper that defined the term jazz as that which is poppycock, skullduggery, things of this nature, nonsense. That has nothing to do with music. I think we do an injustice to genius, to people like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles.

Charlie Parker defined music. Charlie Parker said, "Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art." You see he didn't use the word jazz at all. I think it is a misnomer. It does an injustice to some people. There's a book called Ferocious Alphabets, that's used in an English 100 class (it used to be anyway at UMASS), which says, and I paraphrase, You deny people credit that they should have if you misidentify who they are or what they do.

NEA: You introduced so many new instruments to listeners. How do you relate to so many different instruments?

Yusef Lateef: Well, one can become used by becoming familiar with the instrument. I believe that all humans have knowledge. Each culture has some knowledge. That's why I studied with Saj Dev, an Indian flute player. That's why I studied Stockhausen's music. The pygmies' music of the rain forest is very rich music. So the knowledge is out there. And I also believe one should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. With that kind of inquisitiveness, one discovers things that were unknown before. So that's how I go about it.


NEA: You are a man who wears many different hats, so to speak, as a performer and a composer and an educator and a writer and a philosopher. And I've probably missed some things. Does any one of those fill more space than the others? Do you think of yourself primarily as one of those things?

Yusef Lateef: Well, I suppose an educator. For the last 40 years, maybe more, performer and writer. And, you know, in my spare time, I paint trees. It's a fetish with me.

NEA: That's right, a painter. I didn't mention that.

Yusef Lateef: Yeah, I had an exhibit at the art gallery at UMASS a couple of months ago. It went off quite well.

NEA: So it's like you're a perpetual student.

Yusef Lateef: It seems that way. I enjoy discovering information.

NEA: Is that what keeps you so young?

Yusef Lateef: Well, that and I try to live clean. My wife is very good for me. We eat wholesome food. And we try not to worry but to be cheerful. I think that's one way to live. To try to help others who need help, like the homeless, the orphans. It's such a great thrill to help others. We do that together sometimes. I find that it's a real gas, if you will, to help people.

NEA: Do you think of using music in that way, to help people or to give to people, to nourish people?

Yusef Lateef: No, I thought about music therapy, but I've never indulged in it. However, there are people I've met who seem to receive something from music and, of course, it's speculative what that certain thing is. I have the notion that by using the sense of listening, one can receive wonderful experiences. Just as one uses the sense of seeing to look at beautiful flowers or looking at people who are in love, one gets a thrill from seeing kindness. When people speak with consideration and love, something is received. If you can hear the love in your mother's voice or your father's voice, your sister's voice, it does something for you.  So I'm sure that providence allows certain positives to emanate from music, from a kind word, from a deed if you will. So it's highly possible. It's on my list as having that quality. And what I believe, when someone receives something positive, say a spiritual experience from listening to music, it's not the person -- say there's someone singing and it's so beautiful that it touches one, it's not the person who's singing. But it's the anointing of providence upon the singer that's attracting the listener if you will.

NEA: So do you feel that you are perhaps a vehicle?

Yusef Lateef: I could be sometimes. I only know that there have been times when people would cry as a result of listening to what they heard. And I've seen it happen with other people. For example, once I was at the Montmartre, in Copenhagen, Denmark. And Ben Webster, the late Ben Webster, who had made a home in Denmark the latter part of his life, he was playing "Yesterday," the song written by the Beatles. And it was so beautiful. Out of the Danes, I'd say 90 percent of them were crying as a result of it. And in the Holy Quran, it said, "It is God who makes people cry." So there are moments when providence anoints certain people with these providential qualities. And I dare say that perhaps there have been times when I have felt this quality. It's not that I can demand it. I can only be a recipient of it when it happens.

NEA: Do you feel that that is part of the process when you compose?

Yusef Lateef: Yes, I think it happens then. For example, the late Stravinsky said his greatest thrill was not when he heard the music played back but when the idea, when he was composing, came to him, there was an urge of warmth and beauty and spirituality. I think it can happen. That's why we remember certain melodies. I think they're providentially inspired, if you will.

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