Remembering Dr. Yusef Lateef

I was around 16 when I heard Yusef Lateef for the first time. He was a sideman on Grant Green’s ‘Grantstand’ record. Back in those days, I used to shop at a store called Nobody Beats the Wiz. They had great deals on CDs from Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse records. They had specials that ranged from $3.99 to $6.99, and if you bought 4 CDs, you would get the 5th one free. Those were the days when Sam Goody was charging $16.99 for a CD, so The Wiz was a godsend.

Upon hearing Yusef Lateef on the sax, I immediately knew I wanted to hear more. At that time, I was getting into Cannonball Adderley, and I had recently picked up the ‘The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York’ album. I was thrilled to see that Yusef Lateef was a sideman on that record as well. Keep in mind that back then, you had to do some legwork and research music. You just couldn’t look it up online. I didn’t consider this as “work”. That’s just how it was, and it wasn’t something that I viewed as an inconvenience. I learned about musicians back then from their sideman work. If I liked a sideman on a record, then I would pick up one of their records as a leader. I would also go to the library and look up musicians on their database. Google didn’t exist. People used Alta Vista primarily. There was also Excite, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo Search and a few other search engines, but it didn’t matter because there wasn’t much on the internet about this music anyway.

There weren’t many internet forums either. You had to go to Newsgroups, and those were full of white supremacists, so it was a terrible space for a black teen. A friend of mine resorted to pretending he was white online just so he could use Newsgroups without the headaches. I didn’t have time for BS like that. Not to mention, the internet was also dial up, and it was connected to the land line. It was slow and using it meant that the house couldn’t receive phone calls. The internet at home was essentially useless, so it was the library for me. What I would do was search for musicians based on instruments. So if it was the tenor saxophone, then Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley etc would show up. I would then look up the sidemen on their records.

That’s how I discovered the music. Plus, some knowledgeable people who showed me the way later on and via word of mouth. That was invaluable. Talking to people who knew these musicians was a lot more meaningful than reading an op-ed piece in the NY Times or books from white men who knew nothing about the people they were writing about and were far removed from black musicians, black people, and black culture. They could only interpret the art and what they wrote to the best of their ability, or get second hand information. Whereas when I spoke to people who knew these musicians or were part of the culture, it wasn’t an interpretation. It wasn’t analytical. It was like they were giving you a piece of themselves. They were the art and the culture. They were one with it. It reminded me of an excursion I took to the Lee Morgan shrine in Harlem where I heard elder musicians like Harold Mabern, Larry Ridley and Louis Hayes talk about the life and times of Lee Morgan. They talked about a person they knew. They talked about their friend. They could intimate things that many Morgan biographers couldn’t. I know, I have read the work of the biographers, and as insightful as they may be, they always seem distant and cold. They read like an investigative report. When it comes to narratives, I place the utmost value with the bearers of the flame. Likewise with Dr. Lateef, I much prefer to hear from people that knew him.

When Yusef Lateef came on my radar as a teen, I went on a binge of his work for a good 6 months. The more I learned about him, the deeper respect I had for him. Even though some of his records didn’t connect with me, I still wanted to know more about him. The fact that he moved to Nigeria in the 80s made me even more fascinated with him. He also taught at Ahmadu Bello University. He later released a record called ‘In Nigeria’.

I have such a profound respect for Yusef Lateef, and many of his contemporaries. Black musicians in the US like Lateef identified with the independence struggle of Africans from European colonialism in the 50s and 60s. There have been many songs written in solidarity with African Nationalism movements of the 50s and 60s. My favorite is the Sonny Rollins composition titled ‘Airegin’. It’s Nigeria spelled backwards. The 1st Miles Davis Quintet performs the best version in my opinion.

I wasn’t deeply saddened when I heard that Yusef Lateef had transitioned. I’m thankful for his contribution to making the world a beautiful place. He was 93, so he lived a long and fruitful life. He was a scholar and an educator who cultivated and shaped many young minds. He left an indelible mark of positivity in the world, and while I was never a student in any class he taught, he took me to school with his music.

R.I.P. Dr. Lateef.

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