One of the first jazz artists I experienced in performance, much less reviewed, was Yusef Lateef. I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky at the time and vividly green when it came to writing about music. But a love of jazz was already there and Lateef was a name I knew from the history books – a Detroit native, student of Stockhausen and bandmate of Mingus. He was also a journeyman who continually incorporated world music inspirations into his saxophone and flute playing to the point where he came to distance himself completely from jazz categorization. Lateef’s preferred term for what he engaged in was “autophysiopsychic music.” Not surprisingly, his only Grammy Award came in the New Age category (for 1987’s one man band album, Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony).
But what struck me even before I saw him perform was the string of remarkable recordings Lateef cut for the Atlantic label during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But unlike labelmates Herbie Mann and David Newman, Lateef seldom strayed into overtly commercial fusion territory. His was a more organic fusion sound, typlified by the blend of strings, piano, tenor sax and blues phrasing on Like It Is, the standout track from my favorite Lateef album, 1968’s The Blue Yusef Lateef, and the mix of ethnic reeds and rhythms that dominated the 1977 performance I saw, as well as the 1975 album the show drew from, The Doctor Is In.. and Out.
Lateef continued to follow his own muse as a jazz independent and global musical citizen throughout the decades to come, culminating with what is widely considered to be the nation’s highest jazz honor, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship Award in 2010.
Lateef died yesterday at 93. It wasn’t the kind of passing that earned headlines. But as a formative inspiration during my earliest years of writing, Lateef opened the doors to the rich contemplative beauty of jazz and the myriad inspirations that go into it. To me, he was a giant.