This past week we lost a great and humble person with the passing of Dr. Yusef Lateef at age 93. Much has been written about his music - and there doesn't seem to be quite the right words out there to adequately describe what a remarkable composer, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist he was. But as someone fortunate enough to be a student of Dr. Lateef, to me what truly made him a great man was the fact that the beauty of his music matched his beauty as a person. The music and the man were one and the same, and it is something that we should all aspire to.
Several stories stand out in my mind from the time I studied with him. When a musical colleague in the department had a child, Dr. Lateef reached out with a practical, thoughtful gift – JCPenney towels – something which any parent can never have too much of. As a teaching assistant for African American Music 101, I observed him speak to a room full of perhaps 200 students, most of whom had no idea who he was and who often left in the middle of class. The department never seemed to be able to provide him with a needed microphone, yet he continued to deliver eloquent lectures, playing records for the class, including his own, and telling the stories of the music he lived and breathed, like the time he made hot chocolate for John Coltrane. In private instruction, he was always gentle in his critiques, and trusted his students to seek the knowledge they needed at that particular time. His presence commanded respect and inspired those around him.
It took me some time to process, but one particular lesson that Dr. Lateef taught me changed my whole direction and approach to music. Like many young students of “jazz”, I’d brought him a recording of three standards including Body and Soul. I was focused on replicating the tradition and eager for acknowledgement. Without disparaging the playing, he spoke philosophically about the music. Instead of taking a tradition from decades ago and trying to find myself in it, I needed to find my own voice – even if my audience might be small. I began to realize that true respect for the great music that came before us lies in the path to finding authenticity of expression.
The idea of having one’s own voice is often discussed. But what strikes me now, with Dr. Lateef’s passing, is that in order to have one’s own voice you really have to know yourself. It isn’t just choosing a series of sounds and textures and piecing them together. It comes from being willing to look deeply at our flaws, sit with the sometimes terrifying range of emotions that we experience as human beings, and practice compassion toward others and toward ourselves. It’s a lifelong process to commit to over and over again.
It is no easy task to do so in a world where the business of music eviscerates the ego and often pits fellow artists against each other. To wake each day and keep writing and playing when we are often not recognized or compensated for our work requires the kind of bravery that at its heart recognizes that we aren’t just doing this for ourselves.
Every now and then in the music building, I would see Dr. Lateef walk to the soda machine for a Sprite. I remember that he also liked Jolly Ranchers. These little things made me realize that despite his incredible talent and achievements, he was a fellow human being – and one that maybe had a bit of a sweet tooth.
It’s too easy to put people who have touched us deeply with their beauty into a place where their legacy seems unattainable and in doing so dismiss an opportunity to take a close look inward. Perhaps the most important way we can honor Brother Yusef is to strive to attain the same depth and beauty of spirit as people as we strive for in our music.