Yusef Lateef was a multi-instrumentalist jazz musician who converted to Islam and pioneered the performance of ‘world music’
Yusef Lateef, who has died aged 93, was a jazz musician who pio-neered the performance of “world music” long before the term came into general use.
A convert to Islam, he declared: “My music is, like my religion, sup-posed to take you from this life into the next.”
A man of many talents and a born scholar, Yusef Lateef was born Wil-liam Emanuel Huddleston (some sources give the surname as Evans) on October 9 1920, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His mother played the pi-ano in church and he remembered his father as having “a beautiful sing-ing voice”.
In 1925 his family moved to Detroit, where the boy grew up amid the sounds of the burgeoning swing era. He made up his mind to be a musi-cian at the age of 12, and finally acquired a saxophone, with his father’s help, at 18.
In his twenties, Lateef played with several well-known bands of the period, including those of Lucky Millinder, Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page and Ernie Fields.
In 1949 he was touring in California with Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra when he received news that his wife was ill. Hurrying home to Detroit, he was forced to take a job in the Chrysler factory, there being no regu-lar musical work available.
This experience affected him deeply. In a search for spiritual develop-ment, he had recently embraced Islam, which stresses the obligation to care for one’s family.
The life of a jobbing musician would not provide this. The answer, he concluded, lay in getting himself an education.
He enrolled at Wayne State University to study composition and flute. At the same time his professional fortunes improved, and he was soon leading his own quintet in clubs around the Detroit area. He made his recording debut as a leader in 1956, for the Savoy label.
The flute was not widely used in jazz at the time and, together with the growing Eastern influences in Lateef’s music, its novelty proved popu-lar with record buyers. That album, Jazz for the Thinker, did so well that 1957 saw the release of seven Yusef Lateef albums (four on Savoy, one each on Verve, Prestige and New Jazz).
In 1960 Lateef moved to New York, where he worked briefly with Charles Mingus’s band, as well as leading quartets and quintets of his own. He was now playing — along with the tenor saxophone and flute — the oboe, bassoon and a range of Eastern wind instruments, including the shanai, the arghul and the algaita, plus a collection of Chinese wood-en flutes, bells and gongs. A single from his 1961 album Eastern Sounds, a version of the “Love Theme” from the film Spartacus, reached the top of the jazz charts.
He continued to work occasionally under the leadership of other musi-cians, notably the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. He can be seen and heard playing with Adderley’s sextet in a recording from the television show Jazz Scene USA (1962).
Lateef resumed his studies at the Manhattan School of Music, gaining his performer’s degree on flute in 1969 and a Master’s degree in Music Education in 1970. He then began teaching at the School, running clas-ses in improvisation, which he called “autophysiopsychic music”.
In 1975 Lateef was awarded a Doctorate in Education by the Universi-ty of Massachusetts, Amherst, for a dissertation on Western and Islamic education. Between 1981 and 1985 he was a senior research fellow at the University of Ahmadubelo, Nigeria. On his return he took up a teaching post at The University of Massachusetts, to which he remained attached for the rest of his life.
Although he continued to perform professionally almost until the end (his last tour was in the summer this year), Lateef gave up playing in nightclubs in 1981, because their atmosphere had become obnoxious to him. In later years his gradual move from hearty blues-flavoured playing to a more meditative, introspective style was not always well received by audiences and critics.
During his career he recorded more than 100 albums. From 1992 these were made for his own label, YAL Records. He received a Grammy Award in 1987, for the album Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony.
In addition to his musical and academic activities, Lateef published sev-eral books of short stories and novellas; towards the end of his life he was a keen painter, specialising in studies of trees. He twice made the Hajj to Mecca.
Yusef Lateef is survived by his second wife and a son. His first wife and two children predeceased him.