wax Poetics
Illustration by Marilyn Cvitanic

A Whole New Liquid

Yusef Lateef

published online
Originally published in Issue 12
By John Kruth

Living in the Village means facing the challenge of having a little crib. And having a little crib means you can’t collect a lot of stuff. Well, you can if you’re willing to pay storage, but storage in Manhattan really adds up after a while. Either way you cut it, space comes at a premium. So you’ve got to be pretty brutal about what you keep and what you throw away. In our house, what gets hung on the wall is a political issue. As my girlfriend is a painter, the biggest piece of the pie automatically goes to her. Then there are all those books and CDs piled up to the ceiling, which gives the place all the coziness of a submarine. So among the raven masks, Afghani war rugs, old bowl-back mandolins collecting dust, and, of course, my sweetheart’s vibrant abstractions, is an old black-and-white photograph of Yusef Lateef hanging above our humble television set. The photo hangs there for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is that we both love his music. But there are a few other musicians whose music I love nearly as much—Son House and the Kinks, for example. So this is not just a simple case of musical idolatry. It goes beyond that. 

A few years back we attended a rare performance by Dr. Lateef at the Knitting Factory. He spent a good part of the set in deep concentration, playing piano. The music was rather ethereal. At times it reminded me of some of Erik Satie’s work (the more meditative than jokey stuff). While improvising, Yusef would create these great gaping silences and then fill them with perfectly chosen notes that would drift across the room and slowly disperse in the air. My sweetheart, Marilyn, leaned over and whispered, “I think he’s having a conversation with God.” After the concert, during which Lateef also played some beautiful flute, we happened to bump into Joel Dorn, Yusef’s old producer from his Atlantic days. He was headed backstage and asked if we would like to meet the good Doctor. After nearly thirty years of listening to his music, I was face to face with the man, shaking his rather large hand. The handshake was strong, of course, and went on longer then expected. We spoke for a moment about the distinctive tone quality of Fulani flutes as he continued pumping my hand, while at the same time sizing me up with an inscrutable gaze. Upon releasing my hand, he bowed to Marilyn (Dr. Lateef prefers to bow to ladies rather than shaking hands with them) and looked down into the windows of my soul and said, “Now take care of her.” And from that day on, she has held the trump card in our relationship. 

If it’s cold and raining and there’s nothing to eat in the fridge and it’s nearly eight p.m. and we haven’t had dinner yet, she’ll look at me with those sky blue eyes of hers and say, “Honey, would you run down to the Hong Kong for some takeout?” And if I dare to protest, she would pull out the heavy artillery: “But Yusef said you have to take care of me!”

Back in his disc jockey days at WHAT in Philly, a young Joel Dorn spent a lot of time scheming about how to land a gig as a staff producer at Atlantic Records. Home to the great R&B soul singers Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin, Atlantic also boasted an impeccable jazz roster that included Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Mann. Enter Dorn, “the guy upon whose shoulders stood the low man on the totem pole at Atlantic.” With Neshui Ertegun’s blessing, Joel brought to the mix a new batch of genre-bending eclectics who didn’t really fit most folks’ idea of that tired old handle “jazz.” This next generation of musicians included Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, David “Fathead” Newman, and Hank Crawford.

“I was never interested in making ‘jazz’ records,” Dorn explained. “But I enjoyed certain artists that were known as jazz artists. I was interested in jazz artists who really transcended that. Primary among them were Yusef and Rahsaan. They came out of the jazz thing, but their vision was so much wider. They went beyond making bebop or postmodern quintet records."

Although Dorn made boatloads of jazz records, he never considered himself a jazz producer. “I never thought of those guys as jazz artists. They came out of that tradition and could play what you call ‘jazz,’ but they weren’t bound by playing ‘Cherokee’ in the key of x. 

“I didn’t have another Coltrane. I didn’t have another Mingus. I didn’t have another MJQ. Neshui had done all of that. What I wanted to do was to add to the existing Atlantic jazz catalog in a way that would be unique for the time.” 

Dorn is basically a concept guy whose batting average is a pretty solid .333 when it comes to coughing up new ideas for making records. With Lateef, Joel didn’t have to strain the old genius muscle too hard. The simple ideas seemed to produce the best results. Yusef’s first album for Atlantic in 1967, The Complete Yusef Lateef, was essentially a Whitman’s Sampler that featured the multi-instrumentalist backed by his regular band, a cookin’ trio comprised of pianist Hugh Lawson, Cecil McBee on bass, and drummer Roy Brooks. The record is an elegant catalog of exotica that explores the scope and depth of Yusef’s sonic palate. His smooth, sensuous flute, gutsy tenor work, and trademark oboe blues are all there to be found in fine form.

Lateef’s second album for Atlantic was another “theme” project. The Blue Yusef Lateef, released the following year in 1968, would produce some strange and startling shades of blue indeed. With the help of a bamboo flute, a shannie (a double-reed folk oboe), a tamboura, and a Taiwanese koto, Yusef quickly proved to the listener that the blues, rooted in Africa and transported to the American South in chains, never stopped traveling after migrating north to Chicago. While “Othelia” features Lateef’s burnin’ tenor sax over a bar-walkin’ strut, “Juba Juba”—inspired by William Henry “Juba” Lane, the greatest minstrel dancer of the mid-nineteenth century—has a resigned, almost haunted feel. Yusef abandoned traditional sources and could be heard scat-singing in what sounds like a Philippine dialect on “Moon Cup.” Over Hugh Lawson’s driving piano vamp on “Back Home,” Lateef wails on his double-reed shannie, taking the term “high lonesome” to whole ’nother level. 

Before we begin our interview, here’s a little more background on the good Doctor:

Yusef Abdul Lateef was born William Evans in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1920. (That’s right, he’s eighty-four years old.) Yusef’s mother played piano by ear for the local church while his father was musical as well, singing with his friends in “a very beautiful tenor voice,” as he recalled. 

Around the age of five, his family moved north to Detroit. By the time he was twelve, Lateef wanted a trumpet in the worst way. But his father was apprehensive, fearing his son might get “a bump on the lip” that trumpeters often develop. Yusef then turned his passion towards the alto saxophone, but being “very poor,” it took nearly six years to scrounge the money together to buy an instrument. He played alto for a year before he heard Lester Young and was instantly, “carried away with the tenor.”

While in Chicago in 1947, William Evans began to seriously study the Koran and was initiated into the Ahmadiyya Islamic movement. As part of his spiritual development, he changed his name to Yusef Abdul Lateef. Yusef soon returned to Detroit once again and worked for Chrysler, all the while exploring modal and Eastern scales. By the mid-’50s, he had inked a deal with Savoy Records, which opened the door for a steady stream of albums to follow on a handful of labels including Prestige, Impulse, and Atlantic. After leaving Atlantic in the late ’70s, Yusef briefly recorded for CTI and Landmark, then returned to Atlantic once more in the mid-’80s, where he recorded Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony, winning a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album—a term he found most perplexing. In the early ’90s, he started his own imprint, YAL Records, which has allowed him to release new albums whenever the inspiration strikes. 

Shortly after Thanksgiving, 2004, I interviewed Dr. Lateef by phone at his home in Amherst, where he has been teaching at the University of Massachusetts for many years. 

Wax poetics
Wax poetics
Wax poetics

“Russell and Elliot” is one of your best-known pieces from your Atlantic recordings. It’s been included on quite a few compilations over the years but first appeared on (1969’s) Yusef Lateef’s Detroit. While the band is great, the tone and depth of emotion that pours out of your tenor on the solo is really powerful.

Yusef Lateef: Thank you. That composition was inspired by an experience that I had in grade school, in about seventh or eighth grade at the Russell grade school on the corner of Russell and Elliot. Diagonally across from the school was a spiritualist church. The windows were painted so you couldn’t see in, but I could hear the sounds of the music. Sometimes I would stop there and listen. That piece is the outcome of the experience of listening to musical, spiritual, and vocal sounds coming from inside the church. When the idea came to write Yusef Lateef’s Detroit, of course “Russell and Elliot” was an experience that left a strong impression that found its way to the album. 

“Livingston Playground” seems to embody the weariness of the human condition.

Livingston Playground was a place where I had some memorable experiences. It was just three doors west from where I lived at 15 Grady. I played baseball and horseshoes there and played on the swings and would work out on the exercise bars.

There’s another piece on that album called “Raymond Winchester” named for Raymond Winchester, who had a band of musicians who made their own instruments. [In the original liner notes to the album, Saeeda Lateef described Winchester’s band as “tissue-paper and comb, drum made from a box, bass made of rope, broomstick and tub, tones innately produced, tones making contact with the ultimate, tones—the essence of humanity; true honest, pure!”] His band would play at the Livingston Playground. So it’s all related, you see?


Yes, it was! 

At the end of “Eastern Market,” you call out, “Buy your turnip greens and tomatoes!” like a street vendor hawking his wares.

That was from a real-life experience. My father had a stall on that market. He had a farm thirty-seven miles from Detroit, and every Saturday he would bring his produce there and I would help him. It was a good time, working at the market. I found a lot of miscellaneous instruments that I used earlier in my career on the Eastern Market. Like the argul [a pair of thin bamboo clarinets, bound together], which came from the Syrian spice store. So that played a part in my early formation of music.

Could you recall some of your earliest musical experiences in Detroit? 

The first influences came when I was about twelve years old. I used to live upstairs above what was called the Arcade Theatre, which was located on Hastings Street. They would have stage shows there with a small band composed of a tenor saxophone player named Al Farish and a trumpet player, Buddy Bell. I was impressed early on by them. And later on, they became friends for life. My dad had a beautiful tenor voice and would sing with his comrades when they would come by the house sometimes. The next influence was when I went to high school with Milt Jackson. I was in the classroom the day our teacher, Mr. John Cabera, suggested that he play the vibraphone. We had one of the most popular school bands in Detroit [Sidney D. Miller High School, from which prizefighter Joe Louis also hailed] under the conductorship of Mr. Cabera. Also at the high school was a tenor saxophonist named Lorenzo Lawson, who was going to take Lester Young’s place in Count Basie’s band, but he died young. He was one of the primary influences on me changing to tenor, not to mention Lester Young himself. I had a chance to hear all the major tenor players of the time, like Chu Berry with Cab Calloway. There was Earl Hines with Bud Johnson playing tenor. Andy Kirk’s band with Dick Wilson on tenor. And Don Byas. Herschel Evans with Count Basie, along with Lester Young. I had a lot of major influences from outside of Detroit that passed through Detroit. It was a grand opportunity to learn from the elders. 

[Not only were there enlightened elders to learn from, but just consider Yusef’s peers coming up in Detroit at the time, a group that included the likes of Paul Chambers, Barry Harris, Doug Watkins, Roy Brooks, and Louis Hayes.]

That must have not only pointed you in the direction of becoming a musician but paved the way for you as well. 

It was a beautiful experience.

Wax poetics
Wax poetics
Wax poetics

Who was it that originally suggested that you take up the flute?

Oh, that was Kenny Burrell, after I left Dizzy’s band in 1950 and I came back to Detroit. [Lateef attended Wayne State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree studying the flute.] Mostly I played tenor, but for a short while I also played oboe, at Mr. Cabera’s suggestion. I didn’t take him seriously until about 1955 when I started studying with Ronald Odemark, the oboist from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. 

Your approach to the instrument is completely unique. I’ve never heard anyone before or since blow blues on an oboe like that. 

[Check out Lateef’s “Brother John” on Cannonball Adderley’s Nippon Soul, recorded live in Tokyo in July, 1963, as well as the classic “Love Theme from Spartacus” on Eastern Sounds from 1961 and his mind-bending rendition of Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider” on his 1965 release Live at Pep’s.] 

We now go to the Masked Announcer (aka Joel Dorn), who is busy tending his prize-winning orchids at his greenhouse, for a word or two on Doctor Lateef. 

Joel Dorn: When he would play a blues on the oboe at the Showboat in Philly, the place would go nuts! He could really play blues, and he wasn’t locked into the traditional 12-bar blues. He could find blues in a lot of places most people couldn’t find a color. When I saw him with Cannon in that sextet—other than Miles’s sextet with Trane, Cannon, and Bill Evans—Cannon’s band was one of the best I’d ever seen! He was the real thing!

And now back to Dr. Lateef.

Had you ever heard anyone improvising on oboe before in that way?

Yusef Lateef: I had earlier heard the oboe in orchestral settings, but not in autophysiopsychic music.

[It should be noted here that Dr. Lateef wants nothing to do with that tiresome term “jazz.” He defines his discipline as “autophysiopsychic music.” “Auto” as in the self, “physio” relates to the physical or body, and “psychic” represents the mind or soul.]

Where your earlier albums featured a more traditional acoustic rhythm section with Hugh Lawson and Cecil McBee, Detroit featured congas, Chuck Rainey’s funky electric bass, and Eric Gale’s wailin’ lead guitar. The album sounded more like the contemporary sounds coming out of Detroit at the time that artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were making. Was that a conscious decision on your part? 

That may have come out of the subconscious, actually. I grew up in Detroit, and the people you mentioned, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, they were in the same environment. I believe that certain nuances became ubiquitous in that particular environment.

This just in from the album’s producer, Joel Dorn.

Joel Dorn: By the time we got to Detroit we had already had some success, sales-wise. Nothing phenomenal, but enough that I could keep goin’. But I still couldn’t always get time at Atlantic studio when I wanted it. I’d have to wait till nobody was there. When it was a holiday, like if it was the first day of Passover and Good Friday on the same day, then I could get the studio. [laughs] So I couldn’t get the studio, and someone told me about a joint called Century Sound. It was maybe twenty-five feet long and thirty feet wide. I was looking for a confluence of what Yusef had done on his jazz albums meets Motown. But it wasn’t within a thousand yards of that. I had envisioned Yusef playing with a more commercial rhythm section, some of the guys I had been using with Fathead [Newman] and Hank [Crawford]. Atlantic R&B sections—Eric Gayle, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, and Bernard Purdie. He said, “No, I wanna record with my group.” I said, “Meet me in the middle.” Which is exactly what he did, and he said, “Okay, we’ll record with both rhythm sections, mine and the guys you bring in.” Anytime I had mixed a jazz bass player and a jazz pianist with an R&B drummer it generally didn’t work. Here I figured it really wouldn’t work, because we had two complete rhythm sections. The R&B guys were kinda skittish. They didn’t like playin’ with hard-core jazz guys. They didn’t have those kind of chops. They had their own kind of chops, but they couldn’t match those guys when it came to jazz playing. And the jazz guys couldn’t get inside a funk groove like the hard-core R&B cats played. Things were kinda jumpy for the first hour or so. Then somethin’ happened on that session where the two rhythm sections melted into each other and whatever animosity or fear that existed disappeared, and there was a new kind of music that happened on those two nights. By the time it got to “Russell and Elliot” and “Eastern Market,” the joint was jumpin’. It was one of the few times where oil and water produced a whole new liquid. 

Everything was wrong about it, but I love that record. The room was tiny. It was hard to control the sound. The engineer [Steve Schaeffer] had never made a jazz record in his life. It was a studio where they made commercial pop, disco, and dance records. Of all the records we made, Detroit had an uncompromised commercialism. I didn’t want to compromise or dilute anything he did, but I thought he could reach a wider audience without compromising whatever his values were. Everybody’s goal was accomplished. I came up with a concept that worked, and Yusef brought stuff to it that produced an interesting amalgam. 

We now return to Dr. Lateef.

Soon after Detroit, your band changed members and included pianist Kenny Barron (with bassist Bob Cunningham and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums), which changed your sound, as he’d often play electric piano. You also recorded a lot of his songs.

Yusef Lateef: I met Kenneth when he was about twenty years old. He was so talented, I recognized his talent immediately. I enjoyed playing his compositions “Nubian Lady” and “Jungle Plum” on The Gentle Giant.

We now follow the East River to the land of the 718 area code to speak with pianist Kenny Barron about his years with Yusef.

How did you meet Dr. Lateef?

Kenny Barron: I met him through Jimmy Heath when I was in high school [in the early ’60s]. He had come to Philly to play the Showboat, and his piano player had missed his flight. And Jimmy gave me his number.

You took Yusef’s sound in a new direction with the Fender Rhodes.

Well, I don’t know about that…

The electric keyboard gave those records (The Gentle Giant, Hush and Thunder, and The Doctor Is In…and Out) a funky, fresh feel.

It’s been so long, I don’t really remember, but I think it had a lot to do with the producer at the time, Joel Dorn, who had some very unique ideas. Those sessions were a lot of fun to do. Sometimes he would augment the regular band with other people. The years that I spent with him were really great. One of the things I appreciate about him was he recorded a lot of my music. The other thing was, in actual live performance, you pretty much did whatever you wanted to do. I’m sorry that there’s a whole generation that don’t really know anything about him and how important he is. 

We return to Amherst, Massachusetts, for a word or two on flutes.

The Gentle Giant (1974) focused primarily on your flute work. You’ve used bamboo flute quite extensively over the years.

Yusef Lateef: It’s a hobby of mine to make them. I just made one about two months ago.

Joel Dorn weighs in once more.

Joel Dorn: Yusef had just received his doctorate, and I thought it would be a good way to announce it by calling the album The Doctor Is In…and Out. Like when Rahsaan changed his name, we called the album Rahsaan, Rahsaan. I figured if you mention it enough times on the cover, eventually people would get the joke. On the album cover was a sign with the face of a clock showing three hands on it. I always thought of Hush and Thunder (1973) and The Doctor Is In…and Out (1976) as side one and two of a real big record. Those records are really unique. Whether you like ’em or not, their surreal qualities are the third element of what our partnership produced.

There’s a piece called “A Long Time Ago” on The Diverse Yusef Lateef (1970). I once asked him casually, what’s this one about? He said it’s an example of a number one hit on the Egyptian Hit Parade five thousand years ago. [laughs] Yusef was playin’ outside the white lines! 

Wax poetics
Wax poetics
Wax poetics

We now return to our regularly scheduled interview with Yusef Lateef.

The Doctor Is In…and Out featured lots of electronic sound. There was an ARP player named Dana McCurdy on the session.

Yusef Lateef: Well, the electric bass and piano as well as the electrified flute had come into vogue in the early ’70s. 

Were you listening to any electronic music at the time, like Walter Carlos or Morton Subotnik’s Silver Apples of the Moon?

I listened mostly to serial composers. In the early ’60s, I was influenced by [Karlheinz] Stockhausen. He had a very fertile musical mind.

There’s a wide range of expression on that album, from the electronic groove of the opening cut on “The Improvisors” to you blowing changes on an alto over an old 78 of “In a Little Spanish Town.”

Well, unusual things can happen! [laughs] Joel did that, and we enjoyed it so much. Joel and I had a solid relationship. You never knew what he was gonna think of. He’d dream up an idea and I would carry it out. I just brought in a chart and played to the tape.

Once more the Masked Announcer wishes to expound.

Joel Dorn: Leon Redbone had given me a Christmas gift of a 78 of that song “In a Little Spanish Town” by the City Service Quartet, who used to sing it on the radio back in 1927. Yusef said that he and his father also sang it together when they used to work at a mattress factory. I thought, wouldn’t it be wild to have Yusef come in and play bebop licks on his horn to it. He said fine. You could say that kind of stuff to him and he wouldn’t look at you like you just got out of the nut house. In the beginning, I had to earn my way into his trust, because he’s the kind of guy that doesn’t do things before thinking them through. But after the first two or three records, we had a great working relationship. I’d come up with these concepts, but his response was entirely his own. We were on different sides of the net. If I gave him a good serve, he always gave me a good return. The previous track was of street musicians playing, which ran into Sherlock Holmes calling for Watson to bring him the needle, and that’s how “In a Little Spanish Town” starts off. It was my most Magritte-like record to date—like the painting where it’s day in the sky but night on the ground. When Elvin [Jones] heard that track he just fell out! Every time they got together that’s all Elvin would talk about was how much he dug “In a Little Spanish Town.”

You’ve been accused of being “a gimmick monger” by Gary Giddens in the Village Voice for foisting your crazy ideas on artists like Yusef and Rahsaan. It seemed like the critics would’ve been happy if they just stuck to playing changes.

The hard-core “jazz as jazz is supposed to be” crowd got a little angry sometimes and hated those records. I caught a lot of heat over them. I was the guy who ruined Yusef and Rahsaan for those guys who thought they were supposed to be what they thought they were supposed to be. The records would get a star and a half in Down Beat. But the White college kids who were getting’ high and were listenin’ to Hendrix and Zeppelin and dug Trane and Miles’s electric stuff, they got it and understood you could listen to Sly and Yusef.

And now, once again, Dr. Yusef Lateef.

Your album Part of the Search (1972) was pretty wild with its old-time radio format—each cut jumped from one style to the next, as if the listener was constantly playing with the dial, changing stations. There was even a country-western track on there with Doug Sahm.

Yusef Lateef: Oh, absolutely! I always viewed music like that. When I was a teenager, I’d sit and listen to the radio on Saturday evening or Sunday. You know, things like Spike Jones. It was part of my experience, and I don’t think you can separate your experience from your art. That’s what John Dewey [author of Art as Experience] said, and I believe that.

Are you still exploring the realm of sound and expression through different instruments, or is your focus mostly on composition these days?

Recently it’s been composition. I’ve written a sonata and a piano concerto. I also finished a string quartet that will be performed this February in Los Angeles on a program with John Zorn’s music.

Over the years you have used many different instruments and played in various styles and settings. What do you have to say to musicians today who are searching for new sounds and ways to express themselves?

I think they should follow their heart…because that’s where the truth is.

John Kruth’s writing explores the outer reaches of American music, from his first book on Rahsaan Roland Kirk to an upcoming biography on the life of Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt. He lives in NYC, plays mandolin, and loves old Atlantic soul/jazz sides.

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