Yusef Lateef, Pioneering Jazz Musician, Dies at 93

By Louise Burton on Dec 26, 2013 05:58 PM EST

Yusef Lateef, innovative tenor saxophonist, oboist, flutist and composer, died on December 23 after a brief illness, his wife Ayesha confirmed. He was 93.

During a career that spanned more than six decades, Lateef played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Cannonball Adderley and other big names of jazz. But he is perhaps best known for being one of the first musicians to incorporate the music of other cultures into jazz.

Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston on Oct. 9, 1920, in Chattanooga, Tenn. In 1925, his family moved to Detroit, and during his youth he became involved in the local jazz scene. He was playing with prominent jazz musicians Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge by the time he was 18.

He changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1948. In 1949, Lateef became a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, playing bebop, a style of jazz that was new and innovative at the time.

In Detroit in the 1950s, Lateef began experimenting with music and instruments from other cultures, adding strains of what was later called "world music" to jazz. His use of Eastern scales influenced the later works of saxophonist John Coltrane.

Lateef moved to New York in 1960, where he played with Charlie Mingus and, once again, Cannonball Adderley. He recorded critically acclaimed albums on the Impulse! and Atlantic labels. His recording of Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony won a Grammy Award in 1987.

Lateef earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music from the Manhattan School of Music. In 1975, he received a doctorate from the University of Masachusetts and went on to become a tenured professor of music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

He was one of the first jazz instrumentalists to play the flute in jazz. To this he added ethnic flutes, African drums, Chinese gongs and other instruments from around the world.

"Each culture has some knowledge," Lateef said in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. "That's why I studied with Saj Dev, an Indian flute player. That's why I studied [Karlheinz] Stockhausen's music. The pygmies' music of the rain forest is very rich music. So the knowledge is out there. And I also believe one should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave."

The NEA awarded Lateef a Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2010, the nation's highest jazz honor.

In keeping with his belief in the importance of lifelong learning, Lateef was productive until virtually the end of his life. Last fall, he recorded Voice Prints, which Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich called one of the best albums of the year.

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TagsYusef Lateef, Ayesha, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, William Emanuel Huddleston, world music, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony, Voice Prints

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