Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Call Me Lateef

"When the soul looks out of its body, it should see only beauty in its path. These are the sights we must hold in mind, in order to move to a higher place. Time after time in our hearts and soul we find love. No static, no pain – so pure, so happy to be alive. Waves of love consume us. We find no hatred – just love for all." -- Yusef Lateef
A couple of years ago, one of my friends from Iran, a lady of many talents and virtues, got married to an English gentleman. Later on, they decided to undertake their first trip to the country of birth of the bride, Iran. Now when a non-Muslim marries to a Muslim, for obtaining a spouse visa, in a wired ritual which of course is just pure formality, the non-Muslim needs to chose an Islamic name. It is an artificial religious conversion which has become part of the bureaucracy.

It was under these circumstances that the couple called me to get a suggestion for an Islamic name. Of course, I immediately said: Lateef! Then I tried to say why Lateef, and of course, I gave a lengthy lecture on Dr. Yusef Lateef and why I think, because of the man, it is the best name.

Some days later, I heard from the couple that the embassy staff hasn't accepted Lateef for a name (Lateef means gentle and it sounds more feminine than masculine) and when the couple have explained why they want to chose Lateef, the snooping staff suggests the name of Yusef instead of Lateef. My friends who see no other way to get the travel documents accept the given name. So James became Yusef.  In any case, Yusef is still half of Yusef Lateef.

The man who had the most elegant, poetic name, died yesterday, at the age of 93. He also had the most elegant and poetic music too. Even his Christian name, Bill Evans, echoes that elegance and poetry in jazz.

Yusef was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1920. His jazz apprenticeship happened both in Detroit and New York. For a short period in New York he was with Dizzy Gillespie, but went back to Detroit, his place of residence, to look after his ill wife. Kenny Burrell encouraged Yusef, who at the time was mainly playing tenor saxophone, to pick up flute as well. He recorded for Savoy, Prestige, Impulse and CTI, until establishing his own label YAL. Dr. Lateef was deeply involved in eastern music and eastern sounds and introduced forgotten, ancient instruments to jazz.

Ira Gitler remembers that in gathering information for the Encyclopedia of Jazz, co-authored with Leonard Feather, when he spoke to Yusef Lateef, the enigmatic jazz musician told him that he didn't care to be part of the book. "Although I respected his feelings I had to use my own judgment," says Gitler, "the entry I wrote is self-explanatory: Lateef did not want to be included in this book, because it is an encyclopedia of jazz and not an encyclopedia of music. This points up [to the fact] that American society has not given the jazz writers and performers the respect and recognition commensurate with their art."

Dr. Yusef Lateef used to say "stay in contact with your mind," and Gitler concludes that listening to Yusef is one way to do this.

May peace be upon his great soul.

Yusef’s Mood

The last track was from Davenport Jazz Festival, Doetinchem, The Netherlands. Recorded on October 22, 1971 with Kenny Barron, Bob Cunningham and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath.

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