Yusef Lateef

America’s Real Introduction to Eastern Music 

Yusef Lateef “Love Theme from Spartacus”

John Fraim

Certainly, one of the greatest (yet relatively unnoticed) trends in jazz was a movement towards the sounds of Eastern music in the 1960s. It was happening in rock for sure with the Beatles introduction to Ravi Shankar and the music of India. In jazz, perhaps the major influence to bring Eastern sounds to jazz was through the music of Yasef Lateef. 

Yusef Abdul Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston on October 9, 1920.  He became a jazz legend and the leading multi-instrumentalist composer in jazz. He was also and prominent figure among the Islamic Ahmadiyya Community in America. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee as William Emanuel Huddleston. His family moved, to Lorain, Ohio in 1923. Then, in 1925, they moved to Detroit

Growing up near Detroit, Lateef met many Detroit-based jazz musicians who gained prominence, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Elvin Jones and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Lateef was a proficient saxophonist by the time of his graduation from high school at the age of 18. At this time, he he launched his professional career and began touring with several swing bands. The first instrument he bought was an alto saxophone but after a year he switched to the tenor saxophone, influenced by the playing of Lester Young. 

Although Lateef’s main instruments were the tenor saxophonee and flute, he also played oboe and bassoon. Both of these instruments are rare in jazz. He also played other non-western instruments such as the bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, xun, arghul and koto. He is known for having been an innovator in the blending of jazz with “Eastern” music. Peter Keepnews, in his obituary of Lateef, wrote that the musician “played world music before world music had a name.”

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In 1949, he was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to tour with his orchestra. In 1950, Lateef returned to Detroit and began his studies in composition and flute at Wayne State University. It was during this period that he converted to Islam as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and changed his name to Yusef Lateef. During these years, he twice made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

With the music of Yusef Lateef, American jazz first confronts eastern music for the first time. Especially, the drone sound, one of the characteristics of eastern music. It was a constant hypnotic, humming sound. Like the constant repetition of a chant. A certain phrase or sound continued over and over until it creates a background environment that acts to mesmerize listeners more than anything else. This drone buzz it the music of eastern snake charmers. 

Certainly, John Coltrane was exploring along much the same paths as Lateef. As I write about in my biography of Coltrane, Spirit Catcher, Trane was exploring the strange droning sound he heard in his head during the early sixties. 

This eastern music is eloquently introduced to American jazz in 1961 when Lateef put his art and beliefs to one of the most beautiful songs ever created, Love Theme from Spartacus. One can hear his horn immediately on the piece. The powerful drone sound, always in the background. A number of introductions between east and west were going on in these years. One of these introductions was America’s first introduction to the most powerful elements of eastern music in the jazz of Yusef Lateef.

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