We’re in a period where many of the musicians who helped develop and refine the jazz art form are leaving us. On December 23, we said farewell to Yusef Lateef
Dr. Yusef Abdul Lateef (born William Emanuel Huddleston) was a respected and influential multi-instrumentalist, composer, and educator. He was best known for his work on the tenor saxophone and flute, but he also played oboe and bassoon, and a whole range of non-Western instruments such as bamboo flute, shofar, and koto.
As a young musician, he played in swing bands, and toured with Dizzy Gillespie. By the early 60s, he was coming to prominence, playing with Cannonball Adderley, Elvin Jones, Curtis Fuller, and Charles Mingus. He was also emerging as a leader with a strong voice and an adventurous musical language—he was one of the first to blend Eastern and Middle Eastern sounds into his music. Later in his career, he spent a significant time in Nigeria, and his music began to incorporate strong African elements.
Lateef was a life-long student. Even after becoming a celebrated artist, he proceeded through undergraduate and Master’s degrees at the Manhattan School of Music, then went on to receive a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. The more he studied, the more ambitious he became as a composer and performer. He recorded a seven-movement Symphonic Blues Suite in 1970, and the African-American Epic Suite two decades later. His 1987 recording, Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony (on which he played all the instruments via overdubbing), won a Grammy for Best New Age Album. (Lateef said the he was grateful for the award, but didn’t know what New Age music was.)
I met him and heard him play several times. I remember one time in particular, talking backstage at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. He was a quiet, exotic man, very measured in his conversation. I have his comprehensive jazz theory book on my shelf, and it serves as a reminder of what serious and systematic attention to this art form can produce.
In 2010, the National Endowment for the Arts named Yusef Lateef a Jazz Master. When he died at age 93, he was still teaching, composing, and playing. My takeaway is that it ain’t over until it’s over—keep moving towards your goal.