Grammy-winning musician and composer Yusef Lateef, one of the first to incorporate world music into traditional jazz, has died Monday at his home in Shutesbury in western Massachusetts. He was 93.
Lateef, a tenor saxophonist known for his impressive technique, also became a top flutist. He was a jazz soloist on the oboe and played bassoon. He introduced different types of flutes and other woodwind instruments from many countries into his music and is credited with playing world music before it was officially named.
“I believe that all humans have knowledge,” he said in a 2009 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts. “Each culture has some knowledge. That’s why I studied with Saj Dev, an Indian flute player. That’s why I studied Stockhausen’s music. The pygmies’ music of the rain forest is very rich music. So the knowledge is out there. And I also believe one should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. With that kind of inquisitiveness, one discovers things that were unknown before.”
As a composer, he created works for performers ranging from soloists to bands to choirs. His longer pieces have been played by symphony orchestras throughout the U.S. and in Germany. In 1987, he won a Grammy for his new age recording “Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony,” on which he played all of the instruments.
In 2010, he was named an NEA Jazz Master, the nation’s highest jazz honor.
Lateef had an international following and toured extensively in the U.S., Europe, Japan and Africa. He most recently toured last summer.
He held a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in music education from the Manhattan School of Music, and from 1987 to 2002, he was a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, from which he was awarded a doctorate in education.
He created his own music theory called Autophysiopsychic Music, which he described in the NEA interview as “music from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self, and also from the heart.”
Born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1920, Lateef moved with his family to Detroit five years later. He became acquainted with many top musicians who were part of Detroit’s active music scene, and by age 18, he was touring professionally with swing bands led by Lucky Millinder, Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page and Ernie Fields.
In 1949, he was invited to perform with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, which was playing bebop. He took the name Yusef Lateef after becoming a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and twice made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
He became a fixture on the Detroit jazz scene in the 1950s leading his own quintet. In 1960, he moved to New York and joined Charles Mingus’ band. Lateef went on to perform with some of jazz’s best talent, including Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd and Miles Davis.
Lateef first began recording under his own name in 1956 for Savoy Records and made more than 100 recordings as a leader for such labels as Prestige, Impulse, Atlantic and his own YAL. His most enduring early recordings included such songs as “Love Theme from Spartacus” and “Morning.”
In the 1980s, he taught at a university in Nigeria, where he did research into the Fulani flute.
Lateef formed his own label, YAL Records, in 1992, which released an extended suite, “The World at Peace,” co-composed with percussionist Adam Rudolph. He also wrote a four-movement work for quintet and orchestra, “The African American Epic Suite,” which was commissioned and performed by the WDR Orchestra in Germany in 1993.
He is survived by his wife, Ayesha Lateef; son Yusef Lateef; a granddaughter; and great-grandchildren.