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Yusef Lateef's Secret Garden

Chris M. Slawecki By

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This interview was originally published in February 2000.

Yusef Lateef will tell you—politely, firmly, insistently, frequently—that he does not play jazz.

He was born Bill Evans in Chattanooga (TN), but grew up in Detroit a tenor saxophone student who in the 1940s worked and studied alongside the likes of Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Hot Lips Page. In the 1950s, he studied composition and flute at Wayne State University; shortly thereafter he assumed the name Yusef Lateef and began recording as a leader. Lateef kept working with important jazz musicians, such as Kenny Burrell, Curtis Fuller, and Charles Mingus, and spent the early to mid-1960s in the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. He's generally recorded as a leader ever since leaving this group.

Lateef's albums as a leader (for Prestige, Milestone, Savoy and other labels) are like massive trees—knotty, imposing, leafy and with far-reaching branches. He seemed to form his most enduring and worthwhile musical relationships with pianists. Barry Harris, another Detroit native who logged a stint with Adderly, was among the first as a stalwart in Lateef's early bands as well as on several acclaimed 1960s sessions—most notably Into Something and Eastern Sounds, one of the first successful combinations of Western and non-Western forms. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Lateef's expansive expression incorporated such instruments as the rabat, argol, shannai, and numerous flutes.

During Lateef's long and fruitful association with Atlantic Records in the 1960s and ‘70s, Kenny Barron served as frequent pianist and composer. Toward the end of the 1990s, 32 Jazz advanced Lateef's music by revisiting his past and re-released several albums from this prime Atlantic catalog. The three-CD set The Man With The Big Front Yard compiles four sets spanning '67 to '76: The Complete Yusef Lateef, Yusef Lateef's Detroit, Hush N' Thunder and The Doctor Is In…And Out. It is a remarkable creative (and packaging) achievement. Separate But Equal pairs Lateef's quixotic Part of the Search with Rahsaan Roland Kirk's epic The Case of the Three Sided Dream in Audio Color.

The sprawling Part of the Search seems representative of Lateef's Atlantic work. It's maddeningly all over the map, an instrumental encyclopedia with old-school blues ("K.C. Shuffle") and boogies ("Rockhouse"), country blackouts with Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers, a doo-wop "In The Still Of The Night," and lush (if not elegantly jazzy) "Gettin' Sentimental," all refracted through a rather unique prism. Even while 32Jazz was revisiting his familiar horizons, Lateef was exploring new ones by releasing more than 20 albums of original music on his own label, YAL, in a variety of formats and styles.

Even if Yusef Lateef does not play jazz, he has still been one of the best flute players, one of the more soulful and articulate tenors—and absolutely THE best oboe player—around for the past several decades. Folks who consider him some arcane, exotic figure would be wise to study his straight-ahead playing, such as his multi-instrumental blistering of "Koko's Tune" in a piano-less trio with Herman Wright and Elvin Jones, where he shines on oboe, flute and tenor sax. All he asks is that you just don't call it jazz.

All About Jazz: What is your degree in and from where?

Yusef Lateef: I have an educational doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

AAJ: Why do you think more people aren't pursuing flute and oboe as instruments in contemporary jazz?

YL: I really can't answer that. You know, I don't play jazz. Are you aware of that?

AAJ: How did you end up moving to Detroit?

YL: My parents migrated from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Detroit. I was about four years old when I arrived in Detroit with my family.

AAJ: Other than the obvious album title Yusef Lateef's Detroit, does the music of that city pervade other pieces of your music?

YL: Not that I know of. Unless you can deduct it from the psychological effects of the music in relation to the city that I grew up in.

AAJ: What's the most memorable lesson you learned either from or alongside Charles Mingus?

YL: Perhaps it was one day I had brought in a new arrangement. When it moved to the point where I had a solo, he had drawn a coffin on the paper. That's what I was supposed to relate to in terms of my expression. I think it was "Ecclesiastics."

AAJ: Is there a pianist that has greatly influenced your style on either saxophone or flute?

YL: No, I can't say that, no.

AAJ: How about a vocalist?

YL: Umm...oh, Billie Holiday, yeah. Sarah Vaughan.

AAJ: Your explorations of African, Asian and other World rhythms in the 1960s were close to unparalleled. Do you feel in any way vindicated when you hear pop radio songs with Africanisms or other global influences?

YL: What is your take on "vindicated," what does that mean?

AAJ: Certain people in the 1960s jazz community might have felt you were traveling down a musical dead end, whereas the pop music of the 1990s most emphatically proves you were not.

YL: Oh, I see what you mean. Well, what they're calling "world music" now, I started in 1956, '55. It came about because when I got my first contract with Savoy Records, I realized that if I was to continue recording that I had to expand the canvas of my presentations. So I started studying the music of other cultures in the middle ‘50s. If "world music" is incorporating instruments of other countries with American instruments, well, perhaps I was one of the first, maybe the first, to do it in America.

The first album I made for Savoy Records, I used a rabat which was made for me by a Syrian in Detroit. The origin of that instrument is over five thousand years—it is recorded that King David played the rabat as he said his prayers. I also introduced during this same period the argol, which is a double bamboo flute that's made in Syria. So it was a means of diversifying my presentation that I started studying music of other cultures.

AAJ: Are you aware of plans to reissue that Savoy material on CD?

YL: I talked yesterday to Orrin Keepnews. He's now in the process of packaging some of those Savoy records that I've done. So they should be on the market in the near future.

AAJ: Have you seen any of the 32 Jazz repackages of your Atlantic material?

YL: Yeah, in fact I got one of those yesterday. The one that's called Separate But Equal (editor's note: Rahsaan Roland Kirk's The Case Of The 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color packaged with Lateef's Part Of The Search).

AAJ: Their three-CD set The Man With The Big Front Yard—which compiled The Complete Yusef Lateef ('67), Yusef Lateef's Detroit ('69), Hush N' Thunder ('73) and The Doctor Is In…And Out ('76)—was a well-executed and well-received collection.

YL: Oh, yeah, I think that was a nice packaging job that 32 did.

AAJ: Do you remain in touch with Joel Dorn?

YL: Oh, of course. We're lifelong friends now.

AAJ: Are you teaching during this current semester?

YL: Yes, I'm teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Smith College.

AAJ: Would you discuss how a song like "Opus Parts I & II" (from Hush N' Thunder progresses in conception from sounding like a classical duet to a swinging, funky piece?

YL: I don't share that adjective you just used, but I think it's a delightful composition by Kenneth Barron. I don't approve of those words, "f-u-n-k-y" (he spells). They're not appropriate.

AAJ: How would you describe "Opus" then?

YL: It's platitudinous, you see? Well, I just said, it's a delightful and heartfelt, intelligent composition. It has a deep aesthetic. That's the way I see it.

AAJ: How did the band with Barry Harris come together in Detroit?

YL: Alvin Jackson formed that band, Milt Jackson's brother. He plays bass. He organized the band that was Barry Harris, I think it was Jack Townes on drums, and myself, we played this place called The Bluebird.

AAJ: Were there many outlets to play jazz in the 1950s?

YL: Well, I've never played jazz, so… and, please, if you write an article about me, please don't write that I play jazz. Please.

AAJ: What does the word "soulful" mean to you?

YL: It means something expresses deep feeling.

AAJ: Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography?

YL: Yes, I've thought about it but I haven't done it. I have written a short novella, it's called "Night In The Garden of Love." And I've also written a book of short stories called "Spheres."

AAJ: Do you feel like your more classical suites present a different sort of music to your listeners?

YL: The reason is to utilize the training that I've had. I have formal training, a Bachelor's in Music, majoring in flute, and I have a Master's in Music Education. So I've studied the various forms beginning with the Middle Ages, the Baroque, Impressionistic, etc., at the Manhattan School of Music. I've just utilized what I've been trained to understand.

AAJ: Do you hear any similarities between your suites and, for example, suites by Duke Ellington?

YL: Well, perhaps we've utilized some of the same forms, but we hang different hardware on them. I mean, that's what all composers do. Like symphonies are written in the sonata/allegro form, but a Brahms symphony doesn't sound like a Berlioz symphony because they hang different hardware on them, if you will—different harmonic structures, different rhythms, different harmonies. But the form is basically the same.

AAJ: What have been your most recent projects?

YL: Well, for the last six years I've been recording my own music for my own label, called YAL Records. I've produced, I think, about 21 CDs in the last six years.

The first one of the last three is called Five Bagatelles. The drummer, his name is Kamir Sabir, the percussionist is Adam Rudolph. A bagattele is a short musical piece with character. I myself play woodwinds and Matthew Abidh Waugh played guitar.

The one after that is called Like The Dust. It's a combination of woodwinds and electronic instruments. Oh, I'm sorry, it's Like The Dust For Woodwinds and Guitars. There are two guitars on it.

The very last one is at the factory, it's called Live In Seattle. It should be on the market within a week. It's myself and Adam Rudolph. I have plans for it; I hope it reaches a wide audience, of course.

I think my label, you'll find, is not the status quo music. I think it's unique, it has this uniqueness. It's not ordinary music, if you will.

AAJ: Have you ever considered something different from teaching—like research, but still in a music education vein?

YL: I did research in Nigeria for four years, '81 through '85. I did research in flute, which is where the album Yusef Lateef in Nigeria came from.

AAJ: Is there someone who you wish you could have played—or played more—with?

YL: Not really. I have no regrets. I'm grateful for those wonderful musicians I DID have a chance to play with, like Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball (Adderly), Matthew Rucker.
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