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The term "legend" is bandied about so much these days it's hard to tell the media-hype from the real McCoy. Yusef Lateef, who will be here this weekend, would no doubt have some problems with the distinction, but the facts speak for themselves.
The 85-year-old multi-wind instrument player is one of the last surviving jazz musicians to pre-date the advent of modern jazz, generally known as bebop. He was one of the first jazz musicians to look eastward, to African and Arab cultures for extraneous musical influences, spending time in Nigeria and elsewhere while picking up all manner of tribal wind instruments along the way.
Lateef converted to Islam, like several other black jazz musicians in the 1950s, immersed himself in the mysteries of western classical music and won a Grammy in the process for his Little Symphony, on which he played all the instruments. He is a much sought after educator and has a doctorate in education, writing a dissertation entitled "An Overview of Western and Islamic Education". And, if that weren't enough to fill out his resume, he has also published a novella and two collections of short stories. He is also acknowledged as one of the great living masters and innovators in the African American tradition of autophysiopsychic music - that which emanates from one's spiritual, physical and emotional self.
Growing up in Detroit, Lateef - who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee as William Emanuel Huddleston - took up tenor saxophone in high school and soon became proficient enough to turn professional, starting his working life as an 18-year-old member of Roy Eldridge's Swing-style band. He eventually gravitated to the epicenter of the jazz world, New York, and spent an invaluable stint in bebop founder trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra. In 1950 he returned to Detroit where he studied composition and flute at Wayne State University. Soon after that he became a Muslim.
Musicians often talk about their artistry in spiritual terms, so one wonders if Lateef's religious explorations have had a direct bearing on the way he writes and plays music.
"The teachers, based on the holy Koran, say: God gives knowledge to whom he chooses," said Lateef in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post from his home near Amhurst, Massachusetts. "So I'm susceptible to being one of those who may, or may not, be a recipient of providential knowledge. It's like being a conduit, a vehicle."
No one could accuse Lateef of ego posturing. It is this honesty and integrity that has kept Lateef pushing artistic frontiers for close to seven decades. "Miles Davis said 'I am my best critic'. So an artist is constantly on guard to present the utmost beauty of human expression."
That, surely, must be a bit difficult when you're on stage in front of an adoring audience of thousands hanging on to your every sound and musical nuance. Not, it seems, for Lateef. "It doesn't make any difference to me whether I'm performing for five thousand or five people," he declares. "It's all the same."
For Lateef, artistic endeavor has also meant looking outside his original musical domain and embracing sounds from other cultures. While he has made a name for himself for using an exotic range of African and Arabic instruments, he has also borrowed from our traditional neck of the words too. "The shofar was used by Roy Brooks in one of my groups, and I have utilized it in my compositions. The shofar has a marvelous sound and I am aware that it is a powerful instrument for Jewish people. I hope you don't mind me using it. The purpose is not to be sacrilegious at all because I respect the Jewish faith, so I try to be very altruistic about it."
Lateef says he also came across the shofar during his sojourns in Nigeria. "There the people of the Hausa tribe have used the shofar when they go to war. That's using the power of the instrument for a very different purpose."
One presumes shofar blowing will not be uppermost in Lateef's mind when he arrives here to play four dates at Tel Aviv's Zappa Club and the Einav Center together with a French jazz combo led by Belmondo brothers, Lionel and Stephane. The shows will be based on material from the album put out last year by Lateef and the Belmondos entitled Influence. The influence in question is the inspiration the octogenarian has had on the 30-something French siblings. Influence is a typically wide-ranging work, incorporating straightahead jazz, contemporary classical strains and ethnic motifs, following an undulating and meandering artistic and energy path.
At the end of the day, for Lateef, it is all just music, regardless of stylistic delineation. For him it is the intent that is most important. "As I said: God gives knowledge to whom he chooses."
Yusef Lateef and the Belmondo Brothers will perform at the Einav Center on March 18 at 8 pm and 10 pm, and at the Zappa Club on March 19-21 at 7:30 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.