Beautiful music touches me deeply. By beautiful, I don't mean pretty—though pretty is good. I mean that the music is heart-felt and free of contrivance. When you let music inside, you actually can hear what great artists are thinking, which is a trip. The best of these musicians are spiritual—whether it's Bill Evans, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins John Coltrane or Yusef Lateef. All were (and in some cases still are) committed to expressing themselves honestly and openly—a draining endeavour.
Honesty takes guts. Baring your soul as a musician and letting your emotions pour through your instrument leaves you vulnerable and open to criticism and even ridicule. Yusef Lateef has spent his life trying to get his message across without worrying about what other musicians were doing or compromising his art. Each of his recordings offers a gentle truth—if you make the time to hear what he's saying.
In Part 3 of my conversation with Yusef, he talks about the importance of an individual identity, the struggles all great artists face in the search for their identity, and why some artists are able to make people cry with their music:
JazzWax: Does being spiritual help a musician develop a more distinct voice?
Yusef Lateef: I think so. To be yourself, you have to stop trying to imitate your mentors and the people you look up to. There was a time when tenor saxophonists would hold their instruments out in the air like Lester Young. But you can never become Lester Young. The best you can become is yourself. Once you realize this, you start a journey to find yourself. It’s a difficult, spiritual journey. The best sounds in music have a spiritual content. What I play can’t be heard anywhere else because that’s me. That’s what the great masters like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Bird were saying. Be like you.
JW: What was the big turning point in your life?
YL: I look at my career as a continuum. Everything I’ve experienced has made me who I am today as an artist. There’s no moment when I felt I knew it all. I’m still learning. Like the philosopher John Dewey said, you can’t separate an artist’s experience from his product.
JW: How do you maintain your spiritual side?
YL: I try to be a good person. I try to be good to my children, my wife, my neighbor and the man in the street. I try to do good deeds. When I was on the road in the 1970s, my band used to play for orphans for free. I tried to help orphans because they’re special people. It’s not easy to let go of pretension. But it’s a choice you have to make. If someone wanted to imitate someone else, I wouldn’t down them. But I wouldn’t teach that. I try to help students find themselves.
JW: All great tenor saxophonists have struggled with this, yes?
YL: Sure. When Coleman Hawkins left Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, they brought in Lester Young. But they didn’t like the way Lester played because he didn’t’ sound like Hawk. So Fletcher’s wife played Hawk's records for Lester so he could hear Hawk's sound. Lester said, "But that’s not me.” So he quit. He didn’t try to sound like Hawk. Instead, he joined Count Basie, stayed himself and became great with his own sound.
Musicians think that by sounding like their idol, they will win the affections of that person. Actually, great musicians respect individuality. A radio interviewer once played Lester a bunch of records of other tenor saxophonists who sounded like him and asked Lester what he thought. Lester said, “They sound great, but they sound like me!”
JW: John Coltrane took many risks to find his sound, didn't he?
YL: Oh yes. In 1960, when Coltrane left Miles [Davis], a Swedish interviewer said his solos sounded like he was angry. Coltrane said, “No, no I’m not angry. I'm just trying many different things to find myself.” People like John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon—we all believed we should find our own voices.
JW: You were many years ahead of Coltrane when it came to embracing spiritualism in music. How did he view you?
YL: John was a very humble person and continuously searching for himself. I think he looked at me like I looked at him. We were on the same journey.
JW: Do you think about nature when you play?
YL: I reflect on nature and humanity whenever I prepare to perform or record. I believe that whatever I contemplate or try to achieve in life, a percentage of what I believe, think and feel will naturally come through my music and expression. I have an ongoing romance with the refinement of my music.
JW: What did you learn from Cannonball Adderley when you toured and recorded with him in 1962 and 1963?
YL: Cannonball was terrific. I learned a great deal about the music business from him. Cannonball was a very smart businessman and very shrewd. He also was so informed about many different types of music, from Stravinsky to Schoenberg. When I joined Cannonball’s group in 1962, I had to memorize the whole book. Cannonball said, “On opening night in San Francisco, I don’t’ want any music on the stands.” There were a lot of songs in that book, and I didn’t have much time to commit them to memory. But I did.
JW: What’s one thing about Yusef Lateef that most people don’t’ know?
YL: [Laughing] I don’t know what people know and don’t know about me. I know that I’m still trying to refine the qualitative methods of composition. I think music is an open concept and that different approaches constantly come forth from different human beings who play music. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to find my way of expressing my music. I don’t’ think what I’m doing is anything new. I think what I do strengthens and excites that which is already in listeners’ hearts.
My music has the possibility of intensifying a person’s emotions. And I think the music, in a large sense, has become the embodiment of my intuitive feelings and conceptions. It’s not just me.
JW: What do you mean by “It’s not just me?”
YL: There’s a saying, that “providence creates things in pairs.” When I say, "It’s not me," I mean it's what providence allows me to do when the sound comes through me. For example, you hear a beautiful voice and move toward it. Then you see the woman or man who's singing. It’s not the person singing who is drawing you near. It's the person who created the music and ultimately God. I believe it’s God who makes you cry when you experience beauty.
JW: Have you ever seen people cry listening to music?
YL: Of course. I remember watching a live performance of the late Ben Webster at The Montmartre club in Copenhagen in 1966. He was playing a Beatles song, Yesterday. Ben's playing was so beautiful that people in the audience were crying. This is providence anointing what was coming through Ben Webster’s music.
JazzWax pages: Yusef Lateef's autobiography is a fascinating read and provides many insight into his thinking about music and art. You can look inside the book and buy it here.
JazzWax video clip: I saved my favorite Yusef Lateef video clip for last. Here he is with Cannonball and Nat Adderley on tour in 1963. Yusef plays tenor on Jessica's Birthday, soprano sax on Brother John, and flute on Jive Samba. Whether playing competitive burners or thoughtful ballads, Yusef could bring it on in a gentle, caressing way. Yusef's technique of focusing on the notes rather than sheer technique makes you come forward to hear what he's playing—and saying.