Yusef Lateef - Biography
By Nick Castro
Dr. Yusef Lateef is a jazz musician and composer from Detroit, MI. He was born in 1920 as William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, TN. He was one of the last living legends from his era, having come up through bebop, modern jazz, spiritual/avant jazz, soul-jazz, new age and even dabbling in classical music. He is known for being a multi-instrumentalist with his arsenal of instruments including mainly tenor saxophone and flute but also incorporating bassoon and oboe, both unusual in jazz, and more obscure wind and stringed instruments such as shofar, shanai, arghul, Taiwanese koto, sarewa and bamboo flute. He constructs the bamboo flutes himself. He is also one of the first people in jazz to use eastern instruments in a jazz context. It has been said that Coltrane was influenced by Lateef's innovations with sound. Lateef himself has trouble with being called a jazz musician as his music stretches the boundaries of genre at many times.
The time Lateef spent in Detroit exposed him to some of the greatest local musicians such as Paul Chambers and Elvin Jones, both who would later play with Coltrane, as well as Milt Jackson and Kenny Burrell. Lateef showed tremendous skill when he was very young and was playing professionally by the time he finished high school. He quickly starting working touring gigs with swing bands and landed a job with Dizzy Gillespie in his orchestra. Lateef, then still calling himself William Evans, returned to Detroit to continue his studies, this time at Wayne State University. It was there that Lateef would encounter Islam and convert, changing his name to Yusef Lateef. This also helped to differentiate him from the the other two professional jazz musicians named William Evans, who were playing during the same time.
In 1956 Lateef began his solo career when he signed to Savoy records. That year he released a slew of records for the label with his quintet, which featured pianist Hugh Lawson, trombonist Curtis Fuller and flugelhorn player Wilbur Harden. They released the albums Jazz and the Sounds of Nature (1957 - Savoy), Prayer to the East (1957 - Savoy), The Sounds of Yusef (1957 - Savoy) and Other Sounds (1957 - Savoy). These records were far more conventional than his later works and did not do much to establish him as a unique voice in the jazz scene, though the records are strong in musicianship and as straight ahead jazz albums. They did however feature early uses of instrumentation uncommon to jazz music such as Rebab, an Arabic predecessor to the violin, Turkish finger cymbals, used mainly in belly dance music and a Chinese gong. Shortly after this time Lateef began his association with the famous jazz label Prestige when he would start recording for their subsidiary company New Jazz. He also began to use the oboe in a jazz setting during these recordings. His style was still seeming to meander between the new sounds he would later be associated with and the hard bop styles of the day. By 1960 he had returned to New York to concentrate more on his music and his new sound. Lateef began to study the flute at the Manhattan School of Music. It was from this educational institution that Lateef would later earn both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in music education. He would also teach, beginning in the early 70's, courses there on his theories about autophysiopsychic music. He served as associate professor of music at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
By 1961 Lateef would release, what would become markers in his career in terms of his exploratory sounds, The Centaur and the Phoenix (1961 - Riverside), Into Something (1961 - New Jazz) and Eastern Sounds (1961 - New Jazz). These albums would feature much of the foreign instrumentation which helped to define Lateef as a major force of the world music sound in jazz along with players such as Don Cherry and later John Coltrane. On Eastern Sounds Lateef would employ the use of the xun, a chinese flute in the shape of an ocarina, along with the oboe, which sounded akin to many of the eastern instruments he was using at the time. On this record Lateef and his group would also begin to explore the modal music of India within a jazz context. On the first song of Eastern Sounds, "The Plum Blossom", one can hear Lateef still searching for the blend of eastern and western sound as he starts with the xun but ultimately ends with an abrupt shift to a standard 12-bar jazz blues motif. His next major statement would be on the album Jazz Round the World (1963 - Impulse!), which was a collection of 10 exotic vignettes that saw Lateef perfectly blend jazz and world music, mainly of eastern origin. This album, and the next few releases for the Impulse! label, home of John Coltrane's major works, would prove the dawn of a new era for Lateef. He subsequently released the albums Live at Pep's (1964 - Impulse!), Psychicemotus (1965 - Impulse!), The Golden Flute (1966 - Impulse) and 1984 (1966 - Impulse!).
Towards the end of the 60's Lateef also became interested in classical composition. He would write orchestral works such as "Suite 16/Blues Suite", which would be performed by the Georgia Symphony Orchestra in Augusta. It would also be performed the next year, 1970, by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for the Meadowbrook Music Festival. In 1974 Lateef would receive a healthy commission from the North German Radio Hamburg Orchestra to compose a work for them which he did when he gave them his tone poem "Lalit". All the while, in accordance with his previous efforts, Lateef made jazz records, some with a funk or soul feel to them.
Lateef is also a published author having written both collections of short stories as well as a novella. He has served as a bridge between cultures not only through his music but also through his work as a senior research fellow with the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, where he served in the early 80's. He also began to work in the New Age idiom during this time. Lateef created his own record label in the early 90's called YAL Records, through which he has released several of his own albums. He also has a publishing company called Fana Music.