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Yusef Lateef: Roots & Routes

Tom Greenland By

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Yusef Lateef is one of the first practitioners of "our music" to embrace "the other", those peoples and cultures far removed geographically and often ideologically from the sounds and sensibilities of North America. A renaissance man for the new millennium, Lateef is a philosopher, organologist, composer/arranger/performer, educator, author and acoustic Argonaut. He'll be in town in January for "Detroit: Motor City Jazz" at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a concert series featuring fellow Detroit alumni Charles McPherson, Ron Carter, Marcus Belgrave and Curtis Fuller. In a recent phone conversation, Lateef shared his thoughts about growing up in Detroit, music education, uses of language and ethnomusicology in Africa, among other things.

Lateef's autobiography The Gentle Giant, co-written with Herb Boyd, is due for release within the year and he is excited about his upcoming gig in Manhattan: "I feel honored by being asked to participate. They also engaged me to write some music for the concert, which I've done already. I'm looking forward to it and to playing with Curtis Fuller and Charles McPherson. I saw Charles last week in San Diego, but I haven't seen Curtis Fuller in years. It should be a thrill to play with him again and to play with the [Lincoln Center Jazz] orchestra, a very erudite orchestra."

A product of Detroit's fertile musical environment, Lateef attended Miller High School, where he hung out and jammed with Art Mardigan and Lucky Thompson. "I was there at the same time Milt Jackson was and Kenny Burrell followed after I graduated. There were two teachers, Mr. Goldenberg and John Cebera, and in fact I was there the day that Mr. Cebera suggested that Milt Jackson play the vibraphone. He suggested that I play the oboe, but I didn't take him up on it until years later. They were very serious and that was an influence on us to be serious about the music. Teachers are very important in fashioning their students, what they become. I've never forgotten them. Mr. Cebera's father, who was still in Spain at that time, was a musician and a composer and he used to send us compositions that we played with the high school band. That was one reason that we became very popular and played for many other high schools' affairs. At that time, in the '40s, to be playing this Spanish music—it was unprecedented." Another Detroit high school, Cass Technical, produced the likes of Geri Allen, Ron Carter, Donald Byrd, Regina Carter, Paul Chambers, Wardell Gray, Sir Roland Hanna, Doug Watkins and Gerald Wilson.

A long-time educator himself, Lateef has now retired from teaching African-American music and composition at the colleges of Hampshire, Amherst, Smith and the University of Massachusetts. "What I try to do with students is to help them find what they're looking for; once I find that out, then I try to start moving them in that direction. I recommend practice, education, performance, teaching and composing. And of course it's important to study other scientists, because they seem to overlap, in my thinking; like for example philosophy, when you look at the pre-Socratics, who taught that numbers are things. The Schillinger Method of Musical Composition did the very identical thing. So I encourage my students to have options or alternatives."

Similar to Duke Ellington, who disliked being pigeonholed as a 'jazz' musician and who referred to the music and musicians that inspired him as "beyond category", Lateef is careful with language. "I don't refer to my music as 'jazz', because of the ambiguity of the term; so I coined my own term for my music: it's autophysiopsychic music. The word is self-explanatory, if you look at it; it means music from the physical, the mental and spiritual self. That's the meaning I have for what I do. I taught a class at the Manhattan School of Music after I graduated [from] there; I was in the theory department and I had to write what my class was about and I coined the term at that time." Lateef is also wary of the word improvisation. "Improvised? That term is kind of strange also, because when you look up the definition it says, 'to do something without previous preparation.' Now, in essence, if that were true, you wouldn't have to practice; you wouldn't need preparation. You could take a carpenter and give him the saxophone and let him go play."


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