Jazz Legend Yusef Lateef Leaves a Legacy of Jazz Innovation and Teaching

Legendary jazz master and Five College Distinguished Professor of music and music education Yusef Lateef died Monday at his home in Shutesbury. He was 93.

Heralded as a true innovator as a composer and as a stylist in performances on tenor saxophone, flute and other instruments, Lateef played with the likes of Charlie Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as appearing locally at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center and other area venues.

Lateef earned a doctorate from the UMass Amherst School of Education in 1975, and served for 14 years as a Five College professor, retiring in 2002. A Grammy Award winner, he also received a National Endowment for the Arts award in 2010.

Widely regarded as devoted, patient and compassionate teacher, he continued performing until this past summer.

Stephen Holden of The New York Times described one Lateef performance as exhibiting “a semi-improvisatory style pointedly [that] juxtaposes Western and non-Western modes in loosely connected pieces that evoke a natural world of wind-rustled grasslands and grazing animals.”

Back in 1977, Times reviewer C. Gerald Fraser noted that Lateef had at that point already been performing professionally for 40 years, giving him a nearly unparalleled performing perspective on the evolution of jazz.

Fraser wrote, “One of his albums is ‘Gentle Giant,’ and that's an accurate description of Yusef Lateef, who plays alto and tenor saxophones, bassoon, oboe, flute, argul, shanni and bamboo flute, who has a doctorate in education, who teaches, writes, paints and who doesn't like to have the type of music he plays called jazz.”

“The Gentle Giant” is also the title of Lateef’s 2006 autobiography, written with Herb Boyd, chronicling in part his conversion to Islam in 1948.  A devout member of the Muslim community, Lateef twice performed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to holy city Mecca.

Lateef leaves his wife, Ayesha; a son, Yusef; granddaughter Iqbal; and several great-children. His first wife, Tahira, died previously, as did a son and a daughter.

Calling hours are 3-5:15 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 26, at the Douglas Funeral Home in Amherst, with Janaza prayers at 5:15 p.m.