Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



February 2014

“And I also believe one should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. With that kind of inquisitiveness, one discovers things that were unknown before.”


A Tribute to Yusef Lateef

Dear Reader,

Yusef Lateef (1920-2013), a great jazz musican, composer, theorist and humanist, died in December. An Internet search will yield an abundance of information about his life and how he earned a well-deserved place in the pantheon of musicians.

While Matisse and Picasso upended European art traditions by integrating African masks and patterns into their work, Yusef Lateef searched the globe for instruments whose sounds were unheard in the lexicon of American jazz. He made us all sit up a little straighter, adjusting our ears to melodies emanating from strange-looking instruments, such as the Chinese globular flute. He never stopped searching, making music, and learning. His obituary noted that his “last tour was during the summer.” At 93 years of age. He reminded me of the 78 year-old Renoir, brushes strapped to his hands, which were deformed by rheumatism. He was painting on the day he died.

In a 2009 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts, Yusef Lateef said, “I believe that all humans have knowledge. Each culture has some knowledge. That’s why I studied with Saj Dev, an Indian flute player. That’s why I studied 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. With that kind of inquisitiveness, one discovers things that were unknown before.”

I have written before about how fortunate I was to grow up in Buffalo, New York. Besides having the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as part of my heritage, another part was being able to frequent jazz venues on the East Side. In the 50’s and 60’s, every jazz great came through the doors. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, the Modern Jazz Quartet and yes, Yusef Lateef. I was lucky to be there. Performances created a need in me not to let go of each transformative listening experience. My record collection grew larger and heavier after the cool saturation of those nights.

I am holding the Prestige 1961 recording “Yusef Lateef/Eastern Sounds,” with liner notes written by Joe Goldberg. About Lateef’s composition “The Plum Blossom” and his use of the Chinese globular flute, he wrote. “The instrument, which is twelve hundred years old and made of clay, was found by Lateef in New York’s Chinatown after he had become interested enough to look for one after reading about it in a book on Chinese music. The instrument is, in Lateef’s words, ‘about the size and shape of a grapefruit, with a hole on top and five holes scattered promiscuously in the surface.’ The instrument has only a five note range, and has a sound similar to that obtained by blowing into a pop bottle. Not only the tune, but Lateef’s solo, are within the limitations of that five-note range, a condition you will probably not notice until after you have thoroughly enjoyed the track.” Therein lies a description of Yusef Lateef’s genius.

That distinct sound stayed with me through the decades and in the late 1990’s, I made reference to it in a poem (Gestures of Trees. Mellen Poetry Press, 2000). Learning that he taught nearby at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I thought about trying to hand-deliver or send him a copy. But I never got around to it. I offer it now as a tribute to Yusef Lateef.

Moving Toward a Definition

the Cannonball Adderley Quintet
   shaking the walls
   the fat on the arms and bellies
of men and women
   rocking on bar stools
sending vibrations through
   sweaty glasses of Seagram’s and Black Velvet
               melting ice with the heat of each set.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.
     Julian is jazz.

John Coltrane
      sweetening “My Favorite Things”
     dressing an African princess
      in one kimono after another
red, then blue
     blooming creamy chrysanthemums of sound.
John Coltrane.
     John is jazz.

Yusef Lateef
             blowing hot into
  a Chinese globular flute
gathering the centuries
like a clutch of fine
                glowing calla lilies.
Yusef Lateef.
     Yusef is jazz.

The Modern Jazz Quartet
     cool   cool    cool
      oooou   ooooou   oooou
taking an entire movement for a name
audacious truth
sending plumes of liquid crystals to hang
         on Orion’s Belt
while I sit upside down
             on Cassiopeia’s chair
heart stopped
   stopped with joy.
The Modern Jazz Quartet.
    MJQ is jazz.