Legendary tenor saxophonist, oboist, flutist and composer Yusef Lateef, whose 75-year odyssey in music took him from the bebop clubs of Detroit to the fields of Africa, the world of classical music and the halls of academia as a tenured professor, died Monday at his home in Amherst, Mass. He was 93.
Mr. Lateef's death was confirmed by his wife, Ayesha, who said that he passed away after a short illness that took hold in September.
Mr. Lateef's reputation in jazz was as broad as the shoulders of his towering frame. He gained notoriety as early as the 1950s in Detroit for his influential experiments with what would come to be known as "world music," grafting the exotic instruments and influences of Africa and the Middle and Far East onto the trunk of modern jazz. But the heart of his musicianship was a profound understanding of the blues, best expressed through the wailing, cavernous tone he produced on the tenor sax. It was a sound braised by soulful bent pitches and to-the-point phrasing that grabbed you by the collar and refused to let go.
Yet Mr. Lateef's place in jazz transcended the specifics of style. He was known as a relentless seeker of truth, a lifelong student of music who rejected conventional divides between genres and a man whose Muslim faith and serene countenance added a halo of mysticism to his being and an air of ritual to his performances. He was, to quote the title of his autobiography, a gentle giant.
"Yusef Lateef was a presence," the influential saxophone icon Sonny Rollins told the Free Press in an e-mail sent by his publicist. "He was an enormous spirit who everybody involved in our art loved. He was a dear man who was not only a great friend to me but also a role model."
Born William Evans in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Oct. 9, 1920, Mr. Lateef moved with his family to Detroit when he was 5. (He changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1948.) Mr. Lateef started on alto sax, before switching to tenor while a student at Miller High School. Fellow saxophonist Lucky Thompson recommended him to bandleader Lucky Millinder in New York in 1946, and by 1948, he was working with Dizzy Gillespie's pioneering bebop big band.
Mr. Lateef returned to Detroit in 1950, where he soon began studying composition, theory and music history at what is now Wayne State University and working in local clubs. By the middle '50s he was was leading one of the top bands in the city, mentoring an army of young musicians on the city's explosive modern jazz scene, among them pianist Barry Harris, trombonist Curtis Fuller and drummer Louis Hayes. He recorded in the late '50s for East Coast labels Savoy and Prestige, his band driving to New York for the weekend to record.
He moved to New York around 1960, spending three productive months with Charles Mingus in 1960 and two subsequent years with one of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's best groups. He recorded prolifically as a leader for the Prestige, Riverside and Impulse labels, and by the end of the decade he was recording for Atlantic. Along the way he delved into Eastern scales, voices, electronics, crossover styles, Turkish finger cymbals, Chinese gongs and African drums.
Mr. Lateef finished his bachelor's degree at the Manhattan School of Music in 1969 and stayed on to earn a master's degree in music education. In 1975, he received a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts.
As the 1970s gave way to the '80s, Mr. Lateef spread his wings as a composer writing for epic, programmatic works for orchestra. At the same time, he began working with young musicians in a band called Eternal Wind, exploring a multi-ethnic sensibility that moved a long way from his bebop roots. He also became a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
"To learn is a thrill," Mr. Lateef told the Free Press in 2001. "Whatever I do today is the whole continuum of my experience. Like John Dewey said in his book `Art as Experience,' you can't separate experience from the work of art. So, if I write for the symphony today, you're listening to everything that's happened to me since I was 18 years old."
Mr. Lateef is survived by his wife and son, also named Yusef Lateef.