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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Monday, December 30, 2013

Part of the Search: My Lessons with Yusef Lateef

Yusef Lateef passed away on December 23, 2013.  He was a master musician, an accomplished composer, a Grammy award winner, and an NEA Jazz Master.  He earned a Ph. D. in Education (not an honorary degree), he made over 100 recordings as a leader, he wrote poetry and fiction, and he was a painter.  His career as a performing artist spanned seven decades, and he was a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts (and the Five Colleges Consortium).    Twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to study with him at UMASS.  In the years that followed, his music became a focus of my research.  For a period of time, we exchanged many letters, all now carefully preserved.

(at the Black Sheep, 2000)

I would visit him whenever I returned to Amherst, sometimes at his teaching studio, and other times at his favorite café, the Black Sheep.  He was always generous and kind, and he was a great supporter of the academic endeavors that led to my own professorship at James Madison University.  I gave a recital at the Kennedy Center on his 91st birthday and we performed two of his better known compositions in tribute (The Plum Blossom and Morning) .  We last exchanged letters about a year ago, and this turned out to be my last chance to express my gratitude to him.

Brother Yusef was a mentor to me in ways that I would not understand until I had many years to process our relationship.  When I first entered his studio, I was a very young man.  I was more concerned with earning his approval than with what he could teach me, and he saw through this immediately.  He was more interested in talking about the emotional content of music and sound than what notes to play.  He would say again and again that one's sound is the most important thing that they have, and that the sound should be nurtured like a child.  He turned me on to Lester Young, but he discouraged transcribing, as he felt this interfered with the process of finding one's own voice.

When we did talk about generating pitches, he was a master teacher.  I remember lessons where I would enter the room and he was already playing a chord on the piano.  He would say nothing, playing the chord over and over, and I would improvise.  When something struck him, he would nod, or laugh a little.  After awhile, he would say "What was that thing that you played with the perfect fourths?" or whatever had caught our ears.  He taught me to hone in on the things that tugged at my intuition. He once wrote to me in a letter, "I believe that intuitions speaks, and that we should listen."  Many times, he helped me to pull apart something that was interesting, and then to put it back together.  He challenged me to figure out what made that musical idea interesting to me, and how to build other ideas like it, based on the concept.  It was a constant cycle of listening, reverse-engineering, and building from scratch.  This is the way to develop unique vocabulary.  It is the long road, and I'm still walking it.

Brother Yusef came from an era when there were relatively few recordings (compared to now, for sure), and the most important aspect to gaining a reputation was having a unique sound.  He shunned labels, avoided styles, and valued observation and reflection over everything else.  I never saw him when he didn't recommend a book or two, and they were only sometimes about music.  He taught me to believe in myself, to follow my heart, and to seek answers from within.  He was soft-spoken, articulate, and gentle – but firm in his convictions.  I'm still studying from my little notebook that I kept for our lessons, working to integrate the atonal sequences, and the hybrid methodologies.  I am still listening to his recordings, and learning from the way that he was always listening.  Even as he was speaking, he was listening.  He had a sense of space and time about him that was undeniable.

"Seek knowledge, from the cradle to the grave."  He practiced what he preached.  He wasn't perfect, and he did not pretend to be.  He was humble, and he was open about his quest to keep learning and growing.  He was a pilgrim, traveling through this world.  He was a part of my search, and I will always be inspired by him, as an artist, and as a man.  Dr. Lateef's earthly journey has ended, but as long as there are ears to listen, eyes to see, and hearts to feel, his voice will ring on forever.

peace brother peace.

(inside cover to "The Man with the Big Front Yard")

For recommended recordings, follow me on twitter @PracticeMonster

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