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The Gentle Giant of Music Passes
12/31/2013 1:24:17 PM

Bookcover of The Gentle Giant: The Autobiography of Yesef Lateef with Herb Boyd

By Hakim Abdul-Ali

When you mention the name Yusef Lateef, you automatically think of excellence, grace and brilliance. Well, he was that and more.

More correctly, he was Dr. Yusef Abdul Lateef, a talented, sparkling and dynamic educator, who was known and respected throughout the musical and spiritual realms of modern society. On December 24, 2013, Dr. Lateef died in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, at the age of 93.

I was notified of his death by my good buddy, Dr. Norman Gallimore, of Washington, D.C., who called me to let me know of Dr. Lateef’s passage. I paused and immediately thought of the legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal, who’d recently played a concert date with Dr. Lateef in Vienne, France, in June of this year.

From his home in Ashley Falls, Massachusetts, Mr. Jamal expressed to me via telephone his deep respect and immense feelings for Dr. Lateef’s awesome status as a “hue-man” being and as a stellar master musician and educator.

In discussing Dr. Lateef, Mr. Jamal offered that he had a distinctive saxophone sound. “He had a sound you’ve never heard before unless (you knew) it was coming from him,” is how the widely respected pianist described Dr. Lateef’s proficiency on the saxophone, flute and other assorted woodwind instruments.

“Aside from that, Dr. Yusef Lateef,” said Mr. Jamal, “was a scholar, and I’m not using the word loosely. I’m using the word in the fullness of its essence. All the way from Africa to America, he exhibited brilliance in the world of academics.

“He was a phenomenal musician and his career was unbelievable, and I’m telling you that about a musician talking about a musician. Dr. Lateef had a vast gift that he possessed that only the Creator could have given him.”

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1920, Dr. Lateef was an artistically gifted musical innovator, who was a pioneer in bringing the sounds of his unique tenor saxophone’s resonance and other woodwinds to the world of music unlike any accomplished performer of his era . He specialized in jazz, post-bop, world music, swing, jazz fusion, non-western musical interpretations and even so-called new age music among the genres of music he played and composed.

Dr. Yusef Lateef and his family moved to Ohio early in his youth and then they finally settled in Detroit in 1925. While there as a growing musician, he met and was influenced by many of that city’s burgeoning and outstanding jazz-based musicians.

It’s fondly mentioned by Detroit jazz lovers that Dr. Lateef was a “bad” man on the sax even in high school and, after graduating, he toured with none other than the great Dizzy Gillespie band.

Dr. Yusef Lateef is probably best remembered to serious jazz historians and knowledgeable fans for his membership with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s quintet in the early ‘60s. It is said that the depth of Dr. Lateef’s soulful saxophone played a huge influence on the development of John Coltrane’s rise as a spiritual musician.

Yusef Lateef was a very educated musician, having earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Music in 1969 and a Master’s Degree in Music Education the following year from the Manhattan School of Music. He was honored with an Ed.D. in Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1975.

His teaching credentials include teaching courses in “autophysiopsychic” music at Manhattan School of Music. He also served as an associate professor at the Borough of Manhattan in 1972. He also taught at the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College.

It’s a significant point to add that Dr. Lateef’s doctoral dissertation from UMass Amherst was on Islamic and Western education. 1986 saw Dr. Lateef serving as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies in Zaria, Nigeria.

Though mostly labeled a jazz icon, Dr. Lateef, according to an accounting in “The Detroit Free Press,” described his music as “autophysiopsychic.” Like the heralded Mr. Ahmad, who refers to his music as “American Classical Music,” Dr. Lateef loathed and disliked the term “jazz” in reference to the music that he composed and played.

The world also knew of Dr. Lateef as a poet, author and as a passionate spokesman for his strong Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s beliefs and principles. No matter whom you asked about his character, he was always labeled as intelligent, “gentle,” and sincere.

So was his irrefutable musical presence. He was a true and consummate genius on the flute, xun, shehnai, oboe, arghul, bassoon, koto, shofar, along with his undeniable dexterity on the tenor saxophone.

Forever a universally recognized humble Muslim and submitter to the will of God, Dr. Yusef Lateef always seemed to express his musical interpretations in solemn temperate moods and through progressively bright elements. It seems as though he was never separated from his faith as he performed, no matter where he performed or what he was exquisitely executing in his musical visionary repertoire.

Native Detroiter and cultural historian Jaleel Abdul-Azeez Bradley, now living in the South Carolina Lowcountry, shared some personal vibes with me that he had when he met and heard Dr. Lateef play in Detroit in 1976. Their meeting left an indelible impression on Mr. Bradley’s mind-set about this legendary musical mastermind.

It occurred at the internationally known Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on 8 Mile and Livernois Avenue in the Motor City. Mr. Bradley said, “The thing I most remember about Yusef Lateef was that after hearing him play at Baker’s, and during a break between sets when most musicians take a rest between performances, he took time to talk to me. He was (genuinely) different.

“Yusef took the entire time during the intermission to discuss with me his thoughts and views on matters of religion. He broke down to me the meanings of salaam (peace in Arabic) as it relates to God and people’s relationship to the Creator, along with fully discussing the attributes of God (Alone’s) unique attributes.”

Mr. Bradley further stated that this self-effacing musician, even back then, always seemed to place his emphasis and priorities on the most important focus in life—that being the importance of knowing about God and living in peace with everyone.

Such was the diplomatic, easy going style of Dr. Yusef Lateef, who wrote and published many musical and literary books including the novellas “A Night in the Garden of Love” and “Another Avenue” along with his autobiography, “The Gentle Giant,” done in collaboration with the acclaimed writer Herb Boyd.

A businessman, he owned his own musical publishing company and founded a record company. Dr. Lateef made more than 75 albums/CDs as a group leader with countless others as an accompanying sideman.

In the worlds of music and education, Dr. Yusef Lateef was respected, admired and loved. His life was one of striving for truth, peace, love and expanding the natural reverent development of intellectual understanding among all of God’s creations.

 He will be missed. Peace always. For today and always, that’s “As I See It.”

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