When Yusef Lateef speaks, you know immediately that you're listening to a highly spiritual person. His voice is so deep and gentle that you find yourself captivated by its rich, knowing tone. The sonority of his voice also compels you to think carefully about what you're going to ask him—or say in response to one of his questions.
For the past 60 years, Yusef has made an art out of being true to himself and staying ahead of the musical curve. You can't accuse Yusef of selling out. An early convert among musicians to Islam in 1948, Yusef played tenor saxophone in Dizzy Gillespie's big band of 1949. By 1957 the tenor saxophonist and flutist was writing and recording spiritual compositions for major labels such as Savoy and Riverside. Yusef's adaptation of Eastern scales and his view of life had a profound impact on John Coltrane and other saxophonists who embraced non-Western approaches in the years that followed.
In Part 1 of my conversation with Yusef, he spoke about growing up in Detroit, why the saxophonists in Dizzy Gillespie's big band had to keep an eye on Dizzy's elbow, and what Charlie Parker said to him that still resonates today:
JazzWax: What do you remember most about your childhood?
Yusef Lateef: My passion for nature. I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1920. Two years later my family moved to Lorain, Ohio. Then in 1925 we moved again, to Detroit, where my father took a job in a bedspring factory. I was an only child, so I spent many hours by myself. Growing up alone made me more sensitive and more aware of nature—butterflies, the sky and trees. I was actually entertained by flowers and grasshoppers and ants. They drew my attention. At the time I didn’t’ realize that those things were the phenomenon of creation. I still marvel at nature.
JW: What did you learn playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band of 1949?
YL: I learned about self-reliance. When I joined that band, I just assumed that what was written in the musical parts was what I was supposed to play. But after two weeks, I realized that wasn’t quite the case. There was much more to the music than what was written.
JW: How so?
YL: For example, when we’d get to the end of a phrase in a musical part, there might be a whole note. At first I assumed I was supposed to hold that note for four beats, as written, and move on. Then I started to notice that the other saxes were holding that note—even though it was over on paper. And they all knew exactly when to stop holding the note and continue.
It finally dawned on me what was happening. Dizzy was telling the band to hold a note longer by moving his elbow. If he moved it up, the band extended the note beyond four beats. When he snapped his elbow down, you knew it was time to move on.
JW: Dizzy’s band of 1949 was especially great, and the arrangements on record sound so challenging. True?
YL: Dizzy's band was very physical. You had to be strong to play those charts, which were written by amazing arrangers like Tadd Dameron (left), Budd Johnson, Jimmy Mundy, Gil Fuller and George Handy. It was like going to school for me. I learned so much about music and timing. That band's sound and phrasing had a lot to do with Dizzy's physical movements and dance steps when he conducted it. Timing was everything. His body told you how he wanted an arrangement to sound. Dizzy used to tell me, “Yusef, give me the music students at Harvard for one day and I would give them a lesson in rhythm that would last them for a year."
JW: What was the hardest arrangement in Dizzy’s book?
YL: Probably Things to Come. It was tough to read, and the pace was very, very fast. You either kept up or you fell out.
JW: What was Dizzy like as a person?
YL: Dizzy was a wonderful human being. When I joined the band in early 1949, it was winter. We played Detroit, where I grew up. I didn’t have an overcoat, so Dizzy gave me his. It had a mouton collar. He was so generous. I felt so happy and proud to have it.
Dizzy's personality and musicianship attracted a lot of talented players. The guys in that band were fabulous—the sax section included John Brown and Ernie Henry on altos, Joe Gayles and me on tenors, and Al Gibson on baritone. Cecil Payne had already left. Plus we had Johnny Hartman singing.
JW: Did you know Tadd?
YL: Yes. Tadd taught me a great deal about writing and arranging. I used to go to his house, and he'd show me how to write what he called “turnbacks,” which were very important to Tadd's arrangements. These were a series of chord changes that progressed eloquently back to the main theme of a song. They were important because they let you extend a song without making it sound like you were repeating it. From a listeners' standpoint, they created anticipation and made you want to hear the main part again.
JW: Did you have a chance to meet Charlie Parker?
YL: On several occasions. Before I joined Dizzy’s band I used to hang around the Three Deuces on 52d Street in New York listening to Bird and Max. I was with Tadd one time, and Tadd said, “Why don’t you go up and play something with them?” I was too young to be afraid so I went up and asked if I could play. Bird said, “Sure, come on up.” Luckily they didn’t play Cherokee in B natural. We played something nice and slow—I Surrender Dear.
JW: Was Charlie Parker an inspiration?
YL: He was more than an inspiration. In the early 1950s, I was working with Art Blakey at the Audubon Ballroom in New York. I was down on my playing around that time and told myself that if I didn’t get better, I was going to quit music. That night, when I was with Blakey, Bird had come uptown from 52d Street to hear the group. Afterward, Bird came over to me and said, “Yusef, you played good.” That brought me so much joy that I stayed with music and worked even harder. I still often think about what Bird said to me that night.
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of my conversation with Yusef Lateef, he talks about the importance of developing an individual sound, his exploration of spiritual music in the mid-1950s, his views on life and his time with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet.
JazzWax tracks: Yusef Lateef's live and studio recordings with Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra can be found on a range of CDs. Perhaps the finest examples of this band's work are Hey Pete, Let's Eat Mo' Meat, Jumpin' With Symphony Sid and Swedish Suite. All of these songs and others featuring Yusef Lateef can be found here on Dizzy Gillespie Big Band: Algo Bueno. If you don't own this CD and want it, buy it fast. It appears to be drifting out of print. Or you can find the tracks and others from 1949 at iTunes on Dizzy Gillespie: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings from 1994.
JazzWax video clip: For a taste of Yusef's huge and influential tenor sound, go here. It's not a video. Instead, you will see a series of still photos of Yusef and hear him playing I Need You in the background. It's a terrific introduction to Yusef's full timbre and rich phrasing on the tenor sax. If you want the track, it's on Louis Hayes: Featuring Yusef Lateef and Nat Adderley from 1960.
Listen carefully to the feeling behind Yusef's notes. It's impossible not to be swept away by the lush quality of his ideas, courage and passion. You always sense Yusef is trying to capture a new sound or level of depth. This is true when he's the leader on a record date or when he's appearing as a sideman. Yusef never compromises. I Need You is a fine example of his expression. See what you think.