Yusef A. Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston on October 9, 1920 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and moved with his family to Detroit in 1925. In Detroit, Yusef soon established long-standing friendships with Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd, the Jones brothers (Hank, Thad and Elvin), Kenny Burrell, Lucky Thompson and Matthew Rucker. Originally an altoist, Lateef switched to tenor while in high school. At the age of 18 began touring professionally with swing bands led by Hartley Toots, Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, Herbie Fields and eventually Lucky Millender. In 1949 he was invited to perform with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra.
In 1950 he returned to Detroit, where he began to study composition and flute at Wayne State University, receiving his early training in flute from Larry Teal. He also converted to Islam in the Ahmadiyya movement and took the name Yusef Lateef. From 1955–1959 he led a quintet including Curtis Fuller, Hugh Lawson, Louis Hayes and Ernie Farrell. In 1958 he began studying oboe with Ronald Odemark of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
During 1957 and 1959-1961, Lateef made several notable recordings for Prestige, New Jazz, Riverside, and Moodsville.
Returning to New York in 1960, Yusef undertook further studies in flute with Harold Jones and John Wummer at the Manhattan School of Music, from which he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Music in 1969 and his Master’s Degree in Music Education in 1970. Later, as a member of the school’s theory department in 1971, he taught courses in autophysiopsychic music. From 1972–1976, he was an associate professor of music at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Yusef first began recording under his own name in 1956 for Savoy Records, and made more than 100 recordings as a leader for the Savoy, Prestige, Contemporary, Impulse, Atlantic and YAL labels. His early recordings of such songs as “Love Theme from Spartacus” and “Morning” continue to receive extensive airplay even today. He also toured and recorded with the ensembles of Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Babatunde Olatunji in the 1960s.
As an instrumentalist with his own ensemble, Yusef Lateef performed extensively in concert halls and at colleges and music festivals throughout the United States, Europe, Japan and Africa. His touring ensembles have included such master musicians as Barry Harris, Kenny Barron, Hugh Lawson, Albert Heath, Roy Brooks, Ernie Farrell, Cecil McBee, Bob Cunningham, Adam Rudolph, Charles Moore, Ralph Jones and Frederico Ramos.
Yusef Lateef’s first major work for large orchestra was his Blues Suite, also known as “Suite 16,” premiered in 1969 by the Augusta, GA Symphony Orchestra, performed in 1970 with his hometown Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the Meadowbrook Music Festival, and recorded by the WDR Orchestra in Cologne. In 1974 the NDR Radio Orchestra of Hamburg commissioned him to compose and perform the tone poem “Lalit,” and he later premiered and recorded his Symphony No.1 (Tahira) with the same orchestra.
From August 1981 until August 1985, Dr. Lateef was a senior research Fellow at the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, where he did research into the Fulani flute. Sarewa is the generic name for the Fulani flute.
In 1992 Yusef Lateef formed his own label, YAL Records, to record and distribute his works and those of other artists including the Eternal Wind Quintet. One of his first recordings on the label, co-composed with percussionist Adam Rudolph, was “The World at Peace,” an extended suite requiring 12 musicians including Eternal Wind, which has received repeated performances throughout the United States.
In 1993 the WDR Orchestra producer Ulrich Kurtz commissioned Yusef Lateef’s most ambitious work to date, The African American Epic Suite, a four-movement work for quintet and orchestra representing 400 years of slavery and disfranchisement of African Americans in America. David de Villiers conducted the premiere performance and recording with the WDR Orchestra. The suite has also been performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Yoel Levi as a centerpiece of the National Black Arts Festival in 1998 and by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Wilkins in 2001.
In 1988, Yusef Lateef and hand percussion innovator Adam Rudolph developed a process of composing collaboratively, and recorded 12 albums together.
Through his publishing company, Fana Music, Yusef Lateef contributed extensively to the lexicon of performance and improvisational methodology with such works as “Yusef Lateef’s Flute Book of the Blues,” “A Repository of Melodic Scales and Patterns,” and “123 Duets for Treble Clef Instruments.” Fana has also published numerous works for chamber ensembles, stage bands, duos and wind ensemble or symphony orchestra.As a virtuoso on a broad spectrum of reed instruments — tenor saxophone, flute, oboe, bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, argol, sarewa, and Taiwan koto — Yusef Lateef introduced new sounds and blends of tone colors to audiences all over the world.
As a composer, he compiled a catalog of works not only for the quartets and quintets he led, but for symphony and chamber orchestras, stage bands, small ensembles, vocalists, choruses and solo pianists. His extended works have been performed by the WDR (Cologne), NDR (Hamburg), Atlanta, Augusta and Detroit Symphony Orchestras and the Symphony of the New World. He won a Grammy for his recording of “Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony,” on which he performed all the parts, in 1987.
As an educator, he devoted much of his life to exploring the methodology of autophysiopsychic music in various cultures and passing what he learned on to new generations of students. He was a Five Colleges professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts, from which he was awarded a Ph.D. in Education in 1975. His doctoral dissertation was titled “An Overview of Western and Islamic Education.”
As an author, Yusef Lateef published a novella, “A Night in the Garden of Love,” and two collections of short stories, “Spheres” and “Rain Shapes.”
In 2010, Yusef Lateef was named 2010 American Jazz Master by The National Endowment for the Arts: “A major force on the international musical scene for more than six decades,Yusef Lateef was among the first to incorporate world music into traditional jazz through his mastery of Middle Eastern and Asian reed instruments.”
“GRAMMY winner Yusef Lateef was an accomplished musician and composer known for his impressive and superior technique as a tenor saxophonist,” said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. “He also played flute, oboe and bassoon and his passion for music led him to perform with many of jazz’s greats including Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus, among others. Never one to be confined by genre or boundaries, he introduced woodwind instruments from other countries into his music, and he is often credited with playing world music before it became so named. His experience as a music educator later in life infused his more recent work, and he continued to compose and perform up until this past summer. Our music community, jazz in particular, has lost one of its giants, and his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire and teach future generations. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to his family, friends, and all who had the privilege of being touched by his enduring and soulful work.”