Beyond category: remembering Yusef Lateef


Volume 114, No. 2February, 2014

Peter Zimmerman


Yusef Lateef (1920-2013)

Yusef Lateef (1920-2013)

Yusef Lateef, 93, the saxophonist, multi-reed player and flutist, died on Dec. 23. He had been a Local 802 member since 1960. Below, jazz writer Peter Zimmerman remembers Lateef’s versatility, which was really beyond category.

Last July, when I spoke with Yusef Lateef at his home in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, I was surprised to hear the retired UMass professor say that he didn’t consider himself to be a jazz musician. Instead, he referred to his music as “autophysiopsychic.”

He won his only Grammy in the New Age category, for “Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony,” which Billboard described as “an atmospheric four-movement classical/jazz composition.” On the album, Dr. Lateef played all the instruments, including tenor sax, alto, tenor and soprano flutes, water drums, gourd, kalangu, casio, sitar, shannie, and Ensoniq Mirage, a sampler-synth.

However you want to label him, few would dispute that many of Dr. Lateef’s albums from the late 1950s and 60s – dozens of them, including “The Golden Flute” – could be categorized as jazz. And this is not to mention his work with the seminal Dizzy Gillespie big band of the late 1940s (allegedly, that’s his solo on “Hey Pete! Let’s Eat More Meat”).

Dr. Lateef, who converted to Islam (the Ahmadiyya sect) in 1948, described autophysiopsychic as “music from the physical, the mental, and the spiritual – and from the heart.” He told me that Lester Young personified this type of music. Dr. Lateef spent eight years teaching in Nigeria, where he studied a type of flute called the serewa, described as the “soul of nightlife.” He spent his life collecting instruments from around the world. “I look for them,” he said, “and some of them are given to me.”

I asked him what he thinks about labeling music. He replied that people are free to call it what they like, but he added, “If Picasso named a painting ‘The Bull Fight,’ I wouldn’t call it ‘The Kitty Cat.’”

Dr. Lateef was a 2010 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts award. Herb Boyd’s biography of him, called “The Gentle Giant” (his nickname), was published in 2006.

Mr. Lateef is survived by his wife, Ayesha; a son, Yusef; a granddaughter; and several great-grandchildren.