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Adam Rudolph Remembers Yusef Lateef

10.9.20 – 12.23.13

Yusef Lateef
Yusef Lateef

Anyone reading this knows about the unique beauty of Yusef Lateef’s sound. We recognize him upon hearing the first note. I have seen Yusef play the entire history of the tenor saxophone in one solo. I have witnessed both audience and performers moved to tears by his flute playing. Always the story was deep, more than nine decades of life experience coming through clear and beautiful.

I met Brother Yusef Lateef in New York in 1988 when I performed hand percussion with him for the first time. When he asked me to also bring my compositions for us to perform, he approached them with real interest and respect. In the ensuing 25 years, we performed and collaborated worldwide in many contexts. Yusef always encouraged me to develop myself as a composer and a bandleader. He became a true and dear friend. I also consider him to be my most important teacher, not only in music itself but also in how to live as an artist and a human being. Yusef often said, “With each project I try to do something I have never done before,” which suggests three qualities that I value deeply and which Yusef himself embodied in his life and work: creative imagination, studiousness and courage.

Yusef, like all great artists, refused to let any outside force or persons define him. He followed his own muse, cultivating his imagination with lifelong study and experimentation. I experienced this when we prepared our second compositional collaboration, The World at Peace. Yusef suggested that I write three compositions for half of the 12 instruments, then tell him only which instruments I had written for, the tempo and how many bars I wrote. He would then compose, without seeing my pieces, for the other six musicians. At the same time, he instructed, I would follow the same process, composing without seeing his music. When the ensemble performed our combined compositions it sounded unlike any music we had ever heard before.

Yusef was perhaps the first improvising artist to bring Eastern modes, rhythms and instruments into his music. When I asked him about this, he said he wanted to have a long career creating music and thus he would have to study as much about all kinds of music as possible. In the mid-’80s, after returning from four years in Nigeria, Yusef went deeper into realms of imaginative flight and expression. As he moved beyond standard harmonic forms and instrumentation, he said, “When you get rid of one thing you have to replace it with something else.” As I see it, this means first having the courage to leave behind something one may have invested years in developing, and then having the imagination to think of new approaches grounded in musical substance. Only weeks before his passing, he told me about new intervallic ideas he was trying out.

Yusef’s art traveled to higher dimensions, transcendent of medium or style. His telescope of intuition traveled into deep space, toward new galaxies of thought and musical processes. He brought forth orchestral and chamber works and hundreds of compositions, many of which have become standards. And his creative outpouring was not limited to music alone. Yusef wrote novels, poetry and plays, painted and ran his YAL record company. His pedagogical study, Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, stands as one of our most important reference books. He invented and built new musical instruments, carved bamboo flutes, taught scores of students and earned a doctorate in education.

Brother Yusef will continue to be an inspiration. When we traveled on tour, I could see that every person who interacted with Yusef was touched by his gentle and humble nature. Yusef radiated peace and love; he was a truly luminous being. Or, to put it another way, as Yusef himself said to me recently, “Brother Adam, have you noticed the leaves waving to you?”

Originally Published