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2:31 pm
Tue December 24, 2013

A History Of Phone Calls With Yusef Lateef

Originally published on Tue December 24, 2013 3:22 pm

The multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef, famed in the jazz world for embracing tranquil spiritualism and non-Western sonorities in his own music, died Monday at his home near Amherst, Mass. The death was confirmed by several members of his family.

In one light, Lateef was a deeply bluesy saxophonist who grew up among a fertile, mid-century, African-American Detroit jazz community, then toured with musicians like Cannonball Adderley and Dizzy Gillespie. In another, he was a natural experimentalist: He was an early adopter of jazz flute and an even earlier adopter of oboe and a variety of instruments from the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. He was guided by a desire to develop his own brand of "autophysiopsychic" music — he disdained the term "jazz," and saw his own art guided by physical, mental and spiritual realms — as well as his devout Muslim faith.

Lateef was active to the end of his life, especially as a composer and professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He was 93.

Photographer John Rogers was a close friend. He shares his memories of capturing these photos below. --Patrick Jarenwattananon, NPR Music


Before I came to New York City for good, I spent a summer in Lancaster, Penn. I wasn't in a good way at the time: I was battling homelessness and had developed a serious drinking problem. But a man named Ed Craig and his family took me in. I stayed in their house and worked in their grocery store. Ed and his wife Lorna had two children, Aziza and Kwame. After work, Ed played me records and taught me about jazz history. I came to realize that Yusef Lateef was Ed's lifelong hero. He had even named his son Kwame Lateef Craig.

When I landed back in my hometown of Nashville, Tenn., I hosted a late-night jazz radio show on the now-defunct WRVU-FM. A friend suggested that I contact Yusef Lateef, who was born in Tennessee, for an interview. I got a number, so I cold-called it. Yusef seemed unsure at first, questioning who I was and how I got the number. However, after talking to me for a while, that initial apprehensiveness went away.

It was the first of many calming phone conversations I'd have with Yusef Lateef.

Some time later, I dreamed up the idea of taking Ed to meet his hero. So in the summer of 2001, Ed drove up from Lancaster in his car, picked me up in Brooklyn and headed to Amherst, Mass. The plan was to meet Yusef for lunch at a deli called The Black Sheep. But on the way there, we encountered a torrential downpour, which coincided with a flat tire. As Ed was fixing the tire in the rain, we realized there was an additional problem with the car, so we stopped at the local Goodyear Tire shop in Amherst. I asked to use the phone and looked up the number for The Black Sheep in the phone book. I asked the person who answered to see if someone matching Yusef's description was waiting, and a few seconds later Yusef was on the phone. I explained our dilemma, and Yusef offered to meet us at the repair shop. A few minutes later, we were all laughing and smiling.

Yusef signed all of Ed's records — there must have been at least 20 of them — and Ed got to tell Yusef all about his life and how Yusef's music was always a part of it. He waited with us, and we chatted the entire time the car was being repaired. I snapped a photo of Yusef under an umbrella standing in the parking lot as we drove away.

We stayed in touch with Yusef. Ed traveled with his family to a Muslim retreat in Washington, D.C., that Yusef paid for Ed to attend — both food and lodging. (Yusef invited me, as well, but I declined the invitation.)

Around that time, I started to call Yusef every week, sometimes multiple times. He became a guiding light for me — like a best friend, in terms of honest and open advice. I saw him at shows and conferences over the years in New York, and even rented a car and drove back to Amherst once, but it was on the phone that the friendship was always the strongest.

He seemed to always remember everything that was going on in my life. How was my mother, or how was work? If I had been sick, he would call multiple times checking to see if I was feeling better. I remember many times being alone, depressed and unsure about my life, walking around for hours in Manhattan talking to him on the phone. He was a great listener and never seemed to mind any of it.

In return, I would always call him when I was with people he knew. Countless times, I reconnected him with the late Frank Wess, or Harold Mabern, or Ornette Coleman. In 2012, I was shooting photos for Tootie Heath and I mentioned to Tootie that I was friends with Yusef. We called and I put them on the phone together. It was joyous — I don't think they had talked in a long while. Tootie seized the moment and later traveled with a film crew to Amherst to interview Yusef on camera.

The last time I saw Yusef in person was this spring. He had been telling me for a few weeks that he was coming to Brooklyn to play. I went to the soundcheck and was able to shoot freely the entire time. Afterwards, we chatted, and he said he was thrilled to hear musicians playing some of his compositions. I told him I wanted to take his portrait outside as the sun was starting to set — the photo at the top of this story. I did, and afterward, as he was climbing into his car, I hugged him and I said, "I love you, brother." He smiled and looked me right in the eyes and said, "I love you, too." I can't think of a better way to say goodbye to anyone.

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