Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lateef, Yusef Abdul (William Evans)

Saxophonist and flutist Yusef Lateef is a prolific iconoclast who doubles on a number of instruments from around the world, including bassoon, oboe, shofar and argol. He has recorded more than a hundred albums as a leader.

Lateef was born William Emmanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tennessee on October 9, 1920. His parents, William and Eva, were from Dixon, Tennessee. In Chattanooga, William worked as a railroad cook, and in 1923, the family moved to Lorain, Ohio, where he took a job at a steel mill.

In 1925 they moved once more, to Detroit, Michigan, where William sought work at an automobile plant. In Detroit, William changed the family’s name to Evans. Lateef has stated that he never knew why his father did this. The saxophonist used the name “Bill Evans” professionally until 1950, when he legally changed his name to Yusef Abdul Lateef.

The boy’s parents separated, and he moved with his father into an apartment above the Arcadia Cinema on Hastings Street in Detroit around 1932. Small bands performed at the theater on Saturday nights, and he always sat in the front row. According to Lateef, it was this early experience that sparked his first desire to be a musician.

Young William asked for a trumpet, but his father had seen a local trumpet player’s scarred lip, and asked the boy to choose a different instrument. When he asked for a saxophone, his father agreed to purchase one if the boy would pay half. He sold newspapers for six years in order to save $40, and around 1938, Lateef’s father purchased a Martin alto saxophone for $80 at the Ivan C. Kay music store in Detroit.

In 1940, Lateef played his first paying job at the Ace High Club. He played in Amos Woodward’s group at the Club B&C, where they would back blues singers like Wynonie Harris, and play behind dancers. Some of the records he recalls listening to at this time were Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” and Duke Ellington’s “Just a Sittin’ and a Rockin’.”

After high school, Lateef married Sadie Harper. and they had two sons. Lateef studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music at this time, with Alvin Walls and Teddy Buckner. To supplement these studies, he would sit outside Wardell Gray’s apartment, listening to the saxophonist practice, and run through the Universal Method Saxophone book with Lucky Thompson.

Between 1943 and 1948, Lateef played with the swing bands of Lucky Millinder (alongside Thompson and Sonny Stitt), George Hall, Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge and Ernie Fields. Lateef spent 1946 and 1947 in Chicago, playing with bassist Eugene Wright’s The Dukes of Swing. The pianist in that group was Herman “Sonny” Blount, later known as Sun Ra. With Wright, Lateef played at the Congo Club, Pershing Hotel and Birdland.

In 1948, Lateef joined the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, replacing James Moody. Luis “Sabu” Martinez, Gillespie’s conga player, introduced Lateef to Billie Holiday at this time, and Lateef was able to express his gratitude for her music.

In Gillespie’s band, Lateef played alongside J. J. Johnson, Al McKibbon, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, Chano Pozo and Johnny Hartman. Before he left the group in 1949, he recorded with them, and soloed on two cuts: “St. Louis Blues” and “Dizzier and Dizzier.”

Also in 1948, Lateef adopted Islam, although he had been interested in the religion since 1946, when trumpeter Talib Dawud first introduced him to the Ahmadiyya movement. Around this time, Lateef joined Art Blakey, who had also adopted Islam, and taken the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. Lateef met Charlie Parker, who complimented his playing, after a gig with Blakey at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

In 1950, Lateef moved back to Detroit. Work was hard to come by, so he took a job at the Chrysler Motor Car Company, and studied chemistry and algebra through their engineering program.

Things picked up when Lateef was brought into Mack McCrayry’s band. They played three nights a week at the Forest Club, and backed up T-Bone Walker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown for two weeks in 1950. Kenny Burrell also began using Lateef on gigs, and the pair recorded together in 1953. Burrell urged Lateef to play flute, and Lateef began studying flute and music theory at Larry Teal’s School of Music.

In 1955, Lateef was offered a gig as a leader at Klein’s Show Bar, where he played six nights a week for five years His band included Curtis Fuller on trombone, Hugh Lawson on piano, Ernie Farrow on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. In 1957, this group recorded Jazz Mood at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Hackensack, New Jersey for Savoy Records.

It was during Lateef’s years at the Klein’s Show Bar that he began performing on the oboe and bassoon, and making his own flutes, in order to vary the sounds on his albums. Other albums recorded during this period were Jazz For The Thinker, The Sounds of Yusef, featuring “Playful Flute,” and Eastern Sounds, featuring “The Plum Blossom.”

In 1960, Lateef and his family moved to New York and settled in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Almost immediately, Lateef began playing with trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer at the Half Note. Next, following a sit-in at the Show Place in Greenwich Village, he joined bassis Charles Mingus’s group. The group also included Eric Dolphy, Ted Curson, Dannie Richmond and Rahsaan Roland Kirk; their repertoire at that time included Mingus compositions like “Prayer for Passive Resistance” and “Ecclesiastics.”

Later that year, Lateef left Mingus and joined the group of Babatunde Olatunji, and played on the percussionist’s Drums of Passion album. Also in 1960, he recorded on sessions led by Louis Hayes, Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins and Mingus. Lateef and his family moved to a house in Teaneck, New Jersey later in the year. They remained in Teaneck until around 1970.

In 1962, Lateef turned down offers to go with Monk and Basie, and went with Cannonball Adderley’s group instead. He remained with Cannonball until 1964, and recorded on Ball’s Nippon Soul album in 1963. Following his stay with Cannonball, Lateef formed his own group with Roy Brooks on drums, Ernie Farrow or Cecil McBee on bass, and Hugh Lawson or Mike Nick on piano. They played at Slug’s in New York, the Keystone Corner in California, and Pep’s in Philadelphia.

Lateef enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in 1966, and graduated in 1969 with an M.A. in music education. In 1970, he began teaching at the school, and first introduced his concept of autophysiopsychic music, or “music which comes from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.” In 1971, Lateef taught at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where his students included Albert Heath, Kenny Barron and Donny Hathaway. Lateef performed with Roberta Flack at Carnegie Hall in May of that year.

In 1972, Lateef was invited by Dr. Roland Wiggins, then a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts, to enroll in a doctoral program in education at the university. Lateef’s disserration, “An Overview of Western and Islamic Education,” was completed in 1975.

In 1973, Lateef married his second wife,Tahira. They had a son, Yusef, in 1975. Also in 1975, Lateef was let go by the Borough of Manhattan Community College, as part of a major downsizing by the school. To compensate financially, Lateef spent much of 1976 and 1977 on tour, in places like England, Denmark, Norway, Pakistan, India, Ghana, Egypt and Tunisia. In 1980, Lateef and his family moved to Amherst.

In 1981, Lateef published The Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, a book of scales from around the world. Later that year, he accepted a position as a senior research fellow at the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria. He researched the Sarewa flute there from 1981-1984.

Lateef and his family returned to Amherst in 1985. In 1987, he recorded Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony for Atlantic Records, on which he played all of the instruments. The album won a Grammy for “Best New Age Performance.” Also in 1987, Lateef began teaching in the music department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, alongside Max Roach (Archie Shepp was on the faculty then, too, but in a separate department). This position later evolved into a Five College distinguished professorship, where he would teach at the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Amherst College and Hampshire College. He taught at these schools until he retired, in 2002.

Lateef taught private lessons and “Applied Music” at the University of Massachusetts, and “Ensemble Participation” at Hampshire College.” He taught “History of African-American Music” at Smith College and Amherst College.

In 1992, Lateef founded YAL Records, on which he has released nearly forty albums under his own name. These include Tenors of Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp, Tenors of Yusef Lateef and Ricky Ford, and Yusef Lateef Plays Ballads. Lateef’s most recent release on YAL, Yusef Lateef At the Bottom Line, was issued in 2006. Other notable albums from the 90s include The World At Peace, on Meta Records, and The African-American Epic Suite, featuring “Transformation.”

Today, Lateef’s touring and recording schedules have slowed, but he performs sporadically around the U.S., and in Europe, often with the Belmondo Brothers. He still lives in Amherst.

Selected Discography:

1957 – Other Sounds – New Jazz

1957 – The Sounds Of Yusef – Prestige

1960 – The Centaur And The Phoenix – Riverside

1961 – Eastern Sounds – Prestige

1963 – Jazz ‘Round The World – Impulse!

1964 – Live At Pep’s – Impulse!

1964 – Psychicemotus – Impulse!

1966 – The Golden Flute – Impulse!

1969 – Yusef Lateef’s Detroit – Atlantic

1976 – The Doctor Is In & Out – Atlantic

1977 – Autophysiopsychic – CTI

1983 – In Nigeria – Landmark

1987 – Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony – Atlantic

1992 – Tenors Of Yusef Lateef And Archie Shepp – YAL

1996 – The African-American Epic Suite – Act

1997 – The World At Peace – Meta

1998 – Like The Dust – YAL

2006 – Yusef Lateef At The Bottom Line – YAL

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Contributor: Brad Farberman