Yusef Lateef: A Gentle Giant

His musical life has been a journey from Memphis to Detroit to NY and around the world. He was given the name Gentle Giant by his peers ---he studied and learned the world of music---oboe, flute, tenor. Incurred a life’s name change ---a religion change not to the Nation of Islam nor Black Muslim, but to Amadiyya Islam, a sect of Islam started in 1907. Was encouraged to continue higher education achieving a Bachelors, Masters, and PHD. Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Heath, Albert Tootie Heath, Tony Cox, Garnett Brown, Kenny Barron, and Cannonball Adderley could all attest to his charisma and selfless pursuit of musical enlightenment.

Forty years ago at the Lighthouse, Yusef Lateef and I talked about his music and his idiosyncrasies consisting of Oriental, Blues and Jazz running thru the veins of his tenor sax delivery. We last talked 2007 at the Montreal Jazz Festival after his double bill sharing the engagement with Pharaoh Sanders. He was standing in the lobby of the Hyatt by himself---kinda standoffish. Yusef was about 6’4 and 260lbs, and when you looked at him he gave the impression of I don’t want to be bothered. And since I had interviewed him at the Lighthouse 30 years earlier, I gathered my nerve and went up and asked ‘how you doing?---haven’t seen you since L.A. at the Lighthouse.’ “Bro., that was some years ago. Thanks to Allah, I am well.” He had just won a Grammy for World Music and was traveling over the world doing solo performances. He left us December 23rd at 93 years old.

Yusef played with many artists but was associated with one significant group---The Cannonball Adderley Sextet whose music lives on for musical posterity along with “Something Else” a book of musical philosophies co-authored with Kenny Barron, Tootie Heath and Bob Cunningham that I bought and had autographed at the Lighthouse gig.

1973 INTERVIEW w/Yusef at The Lighthouse

EDH:We’re interviewing the world renowned flautist and tenor saxophonist who has ventured off into and has played with world renown artists as Cannonball Adderley, Ahmad Jamal, Les McCann,and Grant Green to name a few--- his name is Yusef Lateef and he is here at the Lighthouse communicating with the sounds that have made him known for quite a while and we’d like to find out about the man has been off into these endeavors for quite a while and we’ like to find out about Yusef Lateef. And we’d like to make Yusef talk a little bit. He’s not known to talk but just a little bit. Where'd you get your start? I know you were born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and reared in Detroit. How did you get into your the realms of Black Music and Jazz as many have known it for 20 years? Yusef Lateef is here at the Lighthouse (1973) communicating with the sounds that have made him known for quite a while and we’d like to find out about the man who has been off in these endeavors for quite a while and we’d like to know how you got into the realms of Black Music that you are playing these days.

Yusef: First of all brother, I’d like to say I don’t play Black Music. As I understand it, music has no color and playing these days music is song. I might say that the nature of the music might be called environmental music that came about through living in a certain environment But the correct name for the music I play is Autophysiopysychic--- that means that music comes from ones’ physical, mental, and spiritual self. The other thing is that I don’t play Jazz--- I play Autophysiopsychic music. I’d like To make that clear.

EDH:When did you first start playing?

Yusef: I'm sure I got my start the day I was born..the day that God saw fit to put me here on earth---that was the start. Then the environment that I grew up in, my father, my mother, and my friends all fashioned what I am today. I started playing the saxophone when I was in high school at the age of eighteen, in Detroit, Michigan, along with Milt Jackson, and Kenny Burrell. He was younger than us and he followed us at the same high school. I played with local bands and finally I went on the road with people like the Bama State Collegians, Hartley Toots, Lucky Millinder, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy, and so on and so on like that. You see?

EDH:Has the music always been Autophysiopsychic from the first notes you blew when you were 18 years old?

Yusef:.The music has always been Autophysiosychic- Music even though I wasn’t aware of it until 5 or 6 years ago. (1968) You see that music that comes from one’s self is Autophysiopsychic Music---music from the self---spiritual and physical self. The word is self explanatory, but the word Jazz--is a highly ambiguous term by dictionary definitions. And definitions by people is a multiplicity of ambiguities.

EDH:The group that you have playing with you now---are they the same people that you had about a year ago? If so, would you name them?

Yusef:Yes. They are the same men. The percussionist is Mr. Kuumba Albert Tootie Heath; the pianist is Mr. Kenneth Barron (whom he met at the age of 17 who wrote a piece Revelation on his Centaur and the Phoenix album, the bass is Mr. Robert Cunningham..

ED HAMILTON: Now you’ve had this group for about a year plus?

Yusef:Yes

EDH:What type of endeavors are you going into with your realms of Autophysiopsychic music? People don’t know if you are changing and I’d like to know if you are going to make any changes within the realm of music you are playing now.

Yusef:Changes doesn’t come about in my realm of thinking. To wanting to make a change, it has to be a natural evolution to be a genuine change. Otherwise, it’s superficial. And subsequently, I am involved studying and learning, and if a change comes about, I hope that it will be through evolution and nothing superficial.

EDH:Does the change in your diet which you have done in the last year have an effect on your Autophysiopsychic Music?

YUSEF:Certainly.

EDH:Since you are fruitarian/vegetarian, I've interviewed others who have changed. Does it bring upon a change of mind?

Yusef:When the body is affected, it has more strength..the body reacts on the soul..and one reacts on the other..you do have a reaction..

EDH:OK, we are going to delve off into your private life. Are you always playing all year round? And if you don’t, what do you do for a piece of mind?

Yusef:Well to get piece of mind I pray, but my procedure during the year is that I teach at the Borough of Manhattan College where I am an Associate Professor there. I teach there September to May. This is my second year,however, I play concerts intermittently.

EDH:When you traveled to the Mideast,was it the early 60’s and did this have as much of an influence on you as alot of the critics have said in the anthologies written about you?

Yusef:I don't know what the anthologies (critics) have said about me. In that sense,I can’t answer.

EDH:To quote Leonard Feather, he said that when you made your trip to the Middle East, it seemed to have influenced your music and changed you from the vein that was different than what you were known to have played in the past. From your post bebop playing with Donald Byrd after you traveled to the middle east. You were supposed to have been influenced. Were you influenced? Would you say so? Or would you not?

Yusef:Certainly. When one makes the Pilgrimage to Mecca.

ED HAMILTON: That’s where you went ...Mecca?

Yusef:Yes! This past January (1973), I went to Mecca. All praises due to God. And it definitely has a reaction upon the human when he makes a sincere visit to the first house of worship built by Abraham, by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham..

EDH:How long have you been known as Yusef Lateef?

Yusef: Since I had my name changed from William Evans in the courts in 1950.

EDH:At that time when you had your name changed, (fellow musicians called him Bill Evans), you became a member of the Nation of Islam at that time.

Yusef: No! I have never been a member of the Nation of Islam.

ED HAMILTON: For people who mistakenly think you are--can you clear this up?
Yusef:I have never been a member of the Nation of Islam. I’ve been a member of the Amadiyya Movement of Islam. I embraced the religion of Islam movement with the headquarters in Pakistan. It was a movement started by Merzog Gulan Amakamid in 1908.

ED HAMILTON: I’ve learned quite a bit from a man whose been playing for a while, and has established himself and his Autophysiopsychic music that has no bearing toward Jazz nor Black Music because Black Music has no color. And everyone whose never heard him, should, when the opportunity happens---go see Yusef Lateef.

Albert Tootie Heath
Tootie:When I first met Bro.Yusef, he’s been a positive acquaintance in my life--- my entire life. I got a chance to live with him a little bit. We use to live in the Y’s across the US and we lived in one of his friend’s houses in Detroit and I really got a chance to know Bro. Yusef. And I haven’t met a man like him since. He’s been very positive in my life and he helped me stear alot of my musical career in the right direction. Meaning, being open to music of other cultures and studying as much as I can and being as good as much as I possibly can in playing my instrument (drums). And of course, he was teaching me flute. I had a wonderful experience with Bro. Yusef and I haven’t had one like this since. And I don’t think you can have that in one lifetime. But I’m still here, so maybe it’s coming. As of now, I have not, and I’ve played with alot of people, but nobody like Bro. Yusef.

ED HAMILTON: About what year was that when you fIrst met Bro. Yusef?

Tootie: Well it had to have been in the 60’s when I came back home. I actually was living in Sweden. I think it was in the 60’s and I told him I was going to live in Sweden and he told me I didn’t have to quit the group ‘cause I was moving to Sweden. He was still working on one of his degrees. I think he was at NYU at the time studying Philosophy. And he told me I could still come back and play and be in the group in the summer when he was traveling--- not in school and didn’t have any classwork. So I did that and I came back. It had to be in the 60’s. I use to come back here in the summer and play with Bro. Yusef and go back and live in Sweden. I did that for about 4 years and then when I came back here to the US, I had an opportunity to play with Herbie Hancock and that’s when I made the change from Yusef to Herbie. I played with him until he (Bro. Yusef) decided to try something different. I didn’t ever have to leave, plus I was in his arranging class at City College in Manhattan. He had taught an arranging class at Manhattan City College. Donny Hathaway was in that class; Kenny Barron, and of course, Bob Cunningham. The entire Yusef Lateef Quartet was in the class and Donny Hathaway. Bro.Yusef wasn’t teaching consonant music, he was teaching atonal arrangements and things like that. I don’t think Donny Hathaway was into that because he showed up once or twice and then he didn’t show up again. But he wrote a piece for the term project that Bro. Yusef played in a concert. When I went last year to visit with him when he was 92, we talked about that concert and I think he told me he still had the piece that I wrote that I had totally forgotten about for brass quartet. And I think Donny Hathaway did a string quartet or something like that. Kenny Barron also did a string quartet. Bro. Yusef was still talking about the music that I did and he was impresssed because I was not an arranger. All those other guys were experienced arrangers---I was not.

ED:You had the experience in your blood from your brother Jimmy.

Tootie: When you’re not an arranger you don’t have the fears that arrangers have and you don’t have the history and all that to worry about. You take chances that an arranger will not ‘cause he knows better. I think Bro. Yusef still had it ‘cause he had been listening to it.

GARNETT BROWN (played on The Blue Yusef)
I wasn’t a personal friend of Yusef, but there’s a couple of significant reminiscences that come to mind. There’s no doubt that along with GiGi Gryce and Donald Byrd, Yusef and a few other high profile jazz musicians intended to control their destiny artistically and economically. That road was challenging and sometimes froth with obstacles, but Yusef and the others wouldn’t be denied. Artistically, Yusef was spiritually grounded with underpinnings, musicians, and the regular Joe. He was open to myriad cultures and thrived through with interactions with them. That’s one of the reasons he learned to play a wide variety of instruments that emanated from his eyes, ears, and soul being wide open.

Michael Cuscuna (Mosaic/Blue Note):I didn’t know Yusef very well,but always loved his music and admired the serious, focused way that he seemed to approach life. His music was wide ranging and beyond category, but I was always happiest to hear him growl into that tenor saxophone with soul and conviction. (Listen to Blues In Maude’s Flat on Grant Green’s Grantstand.)

Jimmy Heath: We musicians called him The Gentle Giant because he was one of the nicest people you could ever meet. I first met Bill Evans who is now known as Yusef Lateef when he was in the Ernie Fields band in 1945 in Wilmington, NC. He had a big tone on tenor sax. We really didn’t become friends until he was with Dizzy. I wrote a couple of songs for him Angel Man and Mt. Hebron. Bro. Yusef was a strict Muslim. He abided by the Muslim Religion and treated everyone with respect and never was there any malice in his heart. Nothing ever crossed his mind.

Kenny Barron:Yusef’s got his own individual sound--which is a blessing. (When he was 17 years old, Barron wrote Revelation a piece Yusef recorded on his Centaur and the Phoenix, 1960).
Tony Cox-NPR:Yusef was a very good interview and one of the things I wanted to ask when I finally got the chance to ask was what was the motivation behind the song Russell and Elliot? And to my surprise Yusef said it was an intersection in Detroit, Michigan where he grew up. And he said Russell was one street and Elliot was another. I thought that was really funny and I got a good laugh out of his response.

John Levy--- Manager to both Yusef and Cannonball his most successful client described Cannonball’s anxiety anticipating Yusef’s joining the band. “Cannonball was excited at exploring World Music and what exotic colorful sounds Yusef would add not only playing tenor, oboe, and flute. The group now a sextet premiered Nat Adderley’s Jive Samba and Yusef’s Primitivo at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and journeyed on to Paris.”

Kenny Burrell recorded on many albums w/Yusef)

EDH:Previously you said you motivated Yusef to go back to school and get his degree and he’s now involved in education and his playing. Basically, how did you know each other in Detroit?

Kenny Burrell:We went to the same high school which was Miller High School...Sidney D. Miller. Yusef was about ten years older than me. So he went to Miller Hi with my older brother Billy and they were friends. They were the same age and I went to the Hi school ten years later. However, Yusef was one of those musicians who kept progressing on his instrument. So we began to make music together and he was playing at one point for I would say about two years in about ‘54,’53 and part of 55 or 54. It was about a year and a half we worked together with my group at a place for what it's worth Klienes Showbar in Detroit. I had known him before that from his friendship with my older brother and we played at this club at least three or four times a week. I was in college at that time going to Wayne State University and working at night with the band and I just encouraged him. I suggested to him and I think I suggested to him more than once that he should go to college and get a degree and he thought it was a good idea. So he went to Wayne State where I was going, got his Bachelors Degree and what made me so happy about it was that he didn't stop. Then he went on I believe to UMass. I think it was at UMASS where he got his Doctorate and that made me feel really good because he took the ball and really ran with it. And then the other thing in the process of working together, I suggested to him at one point that he might try playing the flute and I think he said to me “I had been thinking about that” and I said it would add another color to the sounds---something he might even enjoy. The next thing I know, he had a flute, was working on it, and started playing on it on the gigs. And beyond that, like he did with the educational pursuit, he also started top play oboe and other reed instruments. He was that kind of progressive mind who was wonderfully real, an inquisitive mind, a beautiful person-- -and I’d like to call him a Gentle Giant.

ED: His autobiography was entitled that---the Gentle Giant.

Kenny: I didn’t know that. I’m saying that unsolicited.

ED: Jimmy Heath even said that in his book I Walked With Giants.

Kenny: That to me he was a giant person in spirit and mind. And that is about all I have to say about him. I’m not sure when he changed his faith and became Yusef Lateef from Bill Evans.

ED: 1950.

Kenny:Well, whenever that was, the point is he was a beautiful man and I was very happy to have known him and very glad he was a part of my life.

Kahlil Gibran once wrote about a man who traveled far and near over land and sea and through his travels learned that “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” This is a testament to the man who was not an average man by any means as he and his group wrote in their collective writings of 1973 “Something Else”---they were Something Else when they played and above all, so was Yusef Lateef ---a natural effervescent essence of a man---truly A Gentle Giant.

Best Songs:
Yusef Live at Peps-Sister Mamie, Number 7
Cannonball Adderley Live @Jazz Workshop-Jive Samba, Primitivo...
Eastern Sounds-Love Theme From Spartacus
Grant Green-Grantstand---Blues In Maude’s Flat
Les McCann-Invitation to Openness & Beaux J POO BOO

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Ed Hamilton