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Jazz Legend Yusef Lateef

The last of the big three has died.

There have been three main sources of inspiration in my life. One was a performer/writer, another was a screenwriter, and the third was a musician. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who wrote 73 episodes of the TV series Route 66 and much more, died in 1996. Humorist, writer, radio performer Jean Shepherd, best known as the writer/narrator of A Christmas Story, died in 1999. Both these men helped form my world view, helped me make sense of life, as I was growing up. But the third one, the musician. Now that’s something altogether.

Yusef Lateef, a legend of jazz, died Dec. 23, 2013. I only learned of it by watching a tribute at the Grammy Awards show to all those musicians who left us last year. They played a sound bite from his tune Plum Blossom while they showed his picture.

Though he was 93 years of age, the news came as a jolt. Despite his advanced age Yusef continued to perform in concerts around the world. There are clips on Youtube from concerts he gave in Europe only a year or two ago. He looked his age, and in the video he performed sitting in a chair, but his playing on tenor sax, flute and a variety of exotic wind instruments was still strong, robust, and filled with emotional impact. I knew he couldn’t live forever, but I wished he could have.

Shepherd and Silliphant influenced me by giving me the desire to tell stories. Shepherd had a wry, realistic way of spinning a tale that, as wild as they were, were full of the realism of life. Silliphant’s scripts were full of poetry and the urge to seek horizons and to live life to its fullest. But their influences were remote. They got to me through TV, radio and movies. I never met either one of them. But Lateef’s influence was direct and personal. I met him. I even interviewed him once.

I first heard him on the radio on a jazz station in Philadelphia, WHAT-FM. DJ Joel Dorn spun a cut that Yusef Recorded with the Cannonball Adderly Quintet in Japan. The tune was “Nippon Soul,” recorded live in Japan. It was at night. I was a college drop out, lying in bed wondering where the hell my life was going. It was a bad night, and then I heard this jazz flute playing on the radio. I had never heard anything like it. It was full of strange sounds, an oriental influence, with a hip jazz rhythm, but even more, something extra. A deep down feeling of soul. A spiritual feeling almost, even though it swung. The solo reached a climax with Yusef, almost growling into the instrument. It was thrilling, stirring. And I thought, man if somebody can play sounds like that, with that kind of feeling, things can’t be all that bad.

Lateef was one of those jazz guys who became a Muslim back in the late forties when it was kind of a hip thing to do. Only in his case, he took it seriously. All of his music can be considered part of a lifelong search for the Infinite. One of his albums, Part of the Search, is typical of his style. Diverse, eclectic, he borrowed modes and scales from cultures around the world, and adopted instruments from different cultures to express himself.

I saw him live in a club called Pep’s, in Philly in the mid sixties. He later recorded a live album there. A pushy friend of mine walked me up to the bandstand and we introduced ourselves to him. I shook his hand and told him I really dug his music. He answered, very humbly, “Thank you.” Then turned down an offer of a drink, because he didn’t consume alcohol. My friend and I went back to our table and a minute later we could hear Yusef practicing the flute back in the dressing room. That was the kind of dedication he had to his music.

I followed his career for years, off and on and in the 1980s I took a chance. He was appearing at The Cellar Door in Washington, DC, near where I live in Virginia. I just looked up the number of the club and called it and actually got Yusef on the phone between sets and asked if I could come to the club next day and interview him. He said sure. It was that simple.

I had no idea how I’d get the interview into print, but I was determined to do it on a freelance basis. He graciously spent an hour with me answering questions and when it was over he went out to his car and took a copy of a Quran out and gave it to me with his autograph. I still have it. It took two years but I managed to get the interview published in Cadence Magazine. I sent a copy to the last address I knew him to be living at, in Amherst, Mass. I got a letter back months later from Nigeria. He had gone there on a fellowship and told me he enjoyed the interview. I’ve still got the letter too.

I saw him probably a total of three times in smoky jazz joints in Philadelphia, Washington, and Maryland. Each time was better than the last. His music kept changing. He was constantly exploring. But always, whatever he played, whether it was bebop, or the later free-form music he played with percussionist Adam Rudolph, there was always that deep, emotional sound of a man searching for something. I suspect that on many a night, when he had those sounds going, when the feeling and the tempo were just right, he entered a different dimension that the rest of us don’t know anything about.

Those who knew him called him The Gentle Giant. There was an aura about him of a man at peace with himself. I could feel it that night when I first shook hands with him. I could hear it in his music. Some of his saxophone excursions took discordant, angry-sounding turns, with visceral, gutteral phrases spitting out of the horn. In his live concerts they could go on for some length, but they were always under control and at the climax there came a carthasis, and a sense of release and rest. Peace.

In the sixties he wrote a song, one of the few that he did the vocal on. The lyrics said:

“I know you’re somewhere thinking of me

Because I’m here

And all I can do

Is think of you.”

In my interview I asked him who he was talking about. He answered. “The Creator.”

So now it’s time for Yusef to rest after a career of 75 years as a working musician. The last of my heroes is gone. He will be greatly missed by many. Especially me.

I’m here and all I can do is think of him.

Here is a clip from one of his later concerts in Europe. Enjoy.