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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 Julian "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?

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