My introduction to the music of Yusef Lateef, who died Monday at 93, came in 1967, when I was a first year law student. My dorm neighbor, Bob Bell, was a jazz aficionado. I knew next to nothing about jazz. I’m not sure how it came about: I may have been talking with Bob about music, or I may have heard something wafting from his dorm room–Jazz on flute? That’s odd–but I ended up borrowing his copy of Lateef’s album Psychicemotus, which sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.
Lateef’s music was eclectic and syncretic. His roots were in big band swing and be-bop, but he later incorporated musical styles from other parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, as well as European art music, into his works. He also used instruments not often or ever before found in jazz; not only flute but oboe, as in the video clip above, and styles not common to jazz, such as the bowed, instead of plucked. bass viol in the same clip. He didn’t like to call his music “jazz”; instead he called it “autophysiopsychic music.” In the video, he’s accompanied by Kenneth Barron on piano, Bob Cunningham on bass, and probably– he’s not identified on the video, but was on all of Lateef’s recordings around the time (1972) the video was made–Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.
Lateef was a teacher as well as performer. He held a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and taught there, and at Amherst College, until near the end of his life.
I must add a footnote about Bob Bell: at the time I knew him, he had the distinction of having his name in the Constitutional Law casebook. He was the named appellant in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Bell v. Maryland, which vacated and remanded his and several others’ convictions for criminal trespass arising from their participation in a sit-in demonstration at a Baltimore restaurant. In a delicious bit of irony, Bob later became Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, the same court that had affirmed his conviction before it was appealed to the Supreme Court.