Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Yusef Lateef Is Dead at 93

Saxophonist and flutist introduced new instruments, world traditions into jazz

Yusef Lateef
Yusef Lateef

Few jazz musicians balanced intellect and instinct, head and heart, as effectively or seamlessly as Yusef Lateef, who died at 93 on Monday, at home in Massachusetts. His prescience and influence as a player and composer were mighty, and often go overlooked, maybe because his innovations resulted in such likable, lucid music, based often in sheer melody and modal groove. A tenorman who projected the sort of bluesy romance we associate with great midcentury hard bop, he became one of jazz’s best flutists, with a stately attack and a pulsating vibrato that gave his sound a breathy humanity. He also introduced into jazz the persona of the searching multireedist, employing unlikely wind instruments from around the world and proving the jazz worth of the oboe. More than most, he understood the importance of timbre: His oboe, with a beautiful woodiness warmer than the soprano sax but less sinister than the bass clarinet, wasn’t a substitute for his sax or flute; it had its own rules, its own charms, and he treated each horn in his arsenal with this specificity. Of course, he was jazz’s first true multiculturalist, whose musicological passion for Eastern musics cleared new paths for improvising musicians. He did all of this ahead of the curve, too. Yusef Lateef’s ’50s were everyone else’s ’60s.

As his NEA bio indicates-he was named a Jazz Master for 2010-Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Tennessee in 1920. When he was 5 his family moved to Detroit, and Lateef came up in that city’s rich scene. Early associations included Donald Byrd, the Jones brothers, Paul Chambers, Lucky Thompson and Kenny Burrell, and he spent much of his late teens and 20s in touring bands, under leaders including Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. (Around age 30, he converted to Islam and became Yusef Lateef.) By the mid-to-late 1950s he was performing and recording as a leader, releasing a string of LPs on the Savoy label that tempered his developing global interests with the hard bop of the day. Based in New York by 1960, he gigged with Charles Mingus and for two years in the Cannonball Adderley Sextet.

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published