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This is not a jazz album.
“I don’t play jazz — in case you’ve heard that’s what I play,” Yusef Lateef told an Ann Arbor Sun reporter in 1976. “That term doesn’t apply to my music, and it doesn’t apply to me.” Lateef described his music as autophysiopsychic. This is music from the mind, the soul, the body. Music that comes, he said, “from the mental, physical and spiritual self.” Just as it is powerful to say what you are, to claim your space proudly, it is just as powerful to say what you are not. And this is not a jazz album.
It’s important to acknowledge the work the way the artist wanted it to be acknowledged. And while the term autophysiopsychic doesn’t slide easily from the lips the way that jazz does, let’s call things by their names. It’s also important to take a step back to ask why. Why, when the lineage of jazz runs through the country in the sounds of horns, drums, bass strings plucked in time to piano riffs? Why, when Black America asserted itself in the graceful elegance of big band, the rebellious cool of bop? Why would anyone want to separate themselves from that? Like the rhythmic lines and experimental sounds that shaped Lateef’s music throughout his career, it’s complex.
The jazz we listen to today used to have a bad reputation. In 1928, with the headline “Is There an Antidote for Jazz?” The Journal of Education printed a series of short essays, each more foreboding than the last. They warned of the music’s ability “to force itself obtrusively upon the attention by dissonant noise” and urged people to make “a definite decision to stay away from jazz, thus eliminating the play influence of it from one’s life.” It was vile, it was harsh, it was the “poison.” But maybe nothing tipped the critics’ hands more than professor F.M. Gregg’s warning. In decrying the “jazzomaniac” he argued that dance halls with their “close-contact dancing” were the root cause. Get rid of them, get rid of jazz, he reasoned, and “all weak brothers and sisters of the race will naturally shrink from undertaking it.” There, in that one turn of phrase, “brothers and sisters of race,” all is revealed. They aren’t arguing the sound, the feel, the shape of the music; they are arguing the race of it. The Blackness of it. The denial of all that is white, and good, and pure. One of the essays brought out the metaphor of darkness and light, asking not if there was a cure for jazz, but if there was a cure for darkness.
Jazz, no matter who it was performed by, was Black music. The music couldn’t be severed from its roots, and that was what made it wrong. A 1937 DownBeat article recognized it: “The main stem in the evolution of jazz is the negroid.” Try to escape it all you want, it was still Black music. And because of that, it was easy to superimpose feelings about Black people onto it. It’s not just that the genre didn’t appeal to you, it was that it was dirty, primitive, unrefined, a darkness where there should be light. With language that was barely coded, it’s no wonder jazz musicians saw through it. Musicians from Tadd Dameron to Mary Lou Williams would, to varying degrees, begin to separate themselves from the term. Duke Ellington found the term outdated, and preferred “American music” or “Negro folk music.” Charles Mingus rejected it as demeaning and racist, “the back-of-the-bus bit.” Nina Simone preferred “Black classical music.” And Lateef, Lateef preferred autophysiopsychic. This is not a jazz album.
All of these musicians seemed to reject the term jazz because of its limitations. There is a freedom in this music. A faraway place that is neither of this Earth, but entirely made up of it. How do you take something so limitless, so boundless, and confine it in one small term? The short answer is: you don’t. You reject it. You replace it. You reclaim the music and wrest it away from what has caged it. “The reason I don’t use the word ‘jazz’ is because it evokes many perceptions and misperceptions,” Lateef wrote in his 2006 autobiography, The Gentle Giant. Then, pulling from the dictionary, he lists the synonyms for the word including nonsense, drivel, drool, hogwash, hokum, hot air, rot, rubbish, trash, trumpery. “At best,” he continues, “these kinds of expressions are a way of saying that the musician and his or her music be given no aesthetic admiration.” According to Yusef, this music was “America’s only true art form,” it deserved more, listeners deserved more and its creators deserved more. How do you define a music that has become so much bigger than anyone imagined? A music that survived the revulsion, the racism? You embrace the bigness of it, the vastness. You step inside it and you create.
For Lateef, that creation meant rejecting the term, but never the art. And maybe without the tether of the term, there was space for his art to fly. Freedom from the label gave Lateef the chance to walk right up to these genre-induced borders, and subtly erase them. There was no place music couldn’t go, no sound that couldn’t be brought into his autophysiopsychic world. He sought out sounds from Africa, India, Japan. He learned about the rubab, a stringed instrument from Afghanistan. The shinai, a woodwind from India. He began crafting his own flutes from bamboo, and incorporating those instruments into his albums as early as the late 1950s. This wasn’t “world music” — another label that’s both limitless and confining. This wasn’t an opportunity to separate them from us, to take the sounds just to shine a spotlight on their differences. This was a chance to meld them, to take their notes and weave them into this thing that other people were calling jazz. He once told DownBeat magazine, “My attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played by the same old horns. When I looked into those other cultures, I found that good instruments existed there.”
Jazz is a genre that relies on its history. It is a musical chain, each link building on the other, stronger and unbroken, its length its power. And with this history comes expectation. In his essay in the collection Jazz/Not Jazz, musicologist Daniel Goldmark writes about this expectation as it relates to instruments: “We might begin to question exactly why musicians who play one instrument … are taken more seriously than those who play more than one instrument regularly.” Why does it feel like that chain fractures and weakens with every new note played on a new instrument? “The idea of playing these various instruments is to change the colors of the musical canvas,” Lateef told a New York Times interviewer in 1977. His music wasn’t a weakening, it was an expansion: an expansion of sound, of instrumentation, of genre, and something he’d been working toward for a very long time.
Lateef was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on October 9, 1920, and given the name William Emmanuel Huddleston. When his family moved to Detroit in 1925, his father changed the family surname to Evans for unknown reasons. It was there that Lateef began to discover his love of music. He’d stand outside of a local Pentecostal church listening to the music spilling from the building. He’d go to Saturday night shows to hear bands, sitting right in the front row to take in every note. He started studying music in high school, sharing his classroom with another soon-to-be jazz great, vibraphonist Milt Jackson.
Detroit high schools were producing musicians who would go on to be household names, the city was electric with music, and Lateef let that current run through him whenever he could. Over the years, the city’s school music programs saw students like Alice Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers and Dorothy Ashby. Detroit’s clubs and ballrooms were where Lateef heard Lester Young, Ben Webster, Don Byas. He would “listen carefully to the saxophone players,” he wrote in his autobiography. He’d listen and learn, soaking up each players’ tone. It was a scene that was unlike any other, “You had to have your stuff together,” Joe Henderson told Jazz from Detroit author Mark Styker. “Detroit had the best listening audience. The audiences around Detroit were like musicians. I mean, they knew. No way to come up on the bandstand jiving. That could be injurious to one’s ego.”
Detroit, like many other northern cities during Lateef’s childhood, was growing. The Great Migration saw Black southerners leaving the region for opportunities up north and building strong, tight-knit Black neighborhoods and artistic communities, like Lateef’s own Black Bottom neighborhood. As Stryker writes in his book, “demand for entertainment, especially jazz, reached a new peak. Scores of new nightclubs, showrooms, theaters, bars, and restaurants opened across Detroit in the 1940s and ’50s.” Most of these were located in Black Bottom and the adjacent Paradise Valley. It was on one of these stages that Lateef had his first paying gig. He played at the Ace Club, on the city’s famed Hastings Street, the heartbeat of the community that was filled with Black-owned businesses, clubs, restaurants and churches. Soon after, he joined the 13 Spirits of Swing, a big band that he got into because he could read music, “and I think that was one of the main reasons they kept me because I hadn’t developed as a soloist yet,” Lateef wrote in his autobiography.
He developed his sound through his work with some of the genre’s biggest names — Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus — each of them adding a little more to his sound and his perspective. “Being a member of Dizzy’s band,” Lateef wrote, “was like attending a top flight musical academy.” Blakey allowed him “to feel free to exercise my utmost artistic abilities that God had given me.” And Mingus, in his trademark brusque style, made it clear that imitation wasn’t voice, telling his group, “Charlie Parker is dead now. Now, what are you going to do?” Mingus was tough, unpredictable, exacting, but Lateef listened, and took what he needed. “I think he was saying that musicians should find their own voice and not depend on others,” he wrote.
Finding your sound is a lot like finding yourself. You take in what fills you, what moves you. You reject what hurts, what diminishes you. And if it’s true that the Lateef in the 13 Spirits of Swing hadn’t found his sound, maybe it was because he was still finding himself. Lateef touches on this in his essay “The Pleasures of Voice In Autophysiopsychic Music.” Finding your sound isn’t just finding the right combination of notes, the right tone, it’s about finding the right you. The you that is ready to become something different, something more connected to the world. “The sound of the music seems to tell us what kind of person is playing. We feel that we can hear their character or personality in that which they are presenting,” he wrote. Lateef was in the process of not just finding his sound, but his spirit.
In 1946, Lateef began studying Islam, and in 1948 he converted. William Emmanuel Huddleston, who had become William Evans, was now Yusef Abdul Lateef. According to his autobiography, Lateef translates to “gentle, amiable and incomprehensible.” And maybe a man who, nearly from the beginning of his career, rejected the confines of labels, embraced the world around him and coined a term that not only helped him understand his music, but positioned it as something spiritual, personal and vast, maybe that’s exactly the name he should have. He tested the waters of his sound and recorded two releases on Savoy in 1957; something more called to him. “It dawned on me that perhaps I could be recording for a few years,” he wrote. “And it was no use reinventing the wheel with each new album. To break the mold, I began to study other instruments from different cultures.” He went to the library, eager to learn all he could. “You can hear music from around the world in our libraries, you know,” he told the Ann Arbor Sun. “I spent much time in the Detroit Public Library.”
His musical lessons found him discovering global sounds and instruments, and expanding his own horizons by picking up the oboe, which he first featured on an album in 1957. That track, “Oboe Blues,” on the 1959 album The Dreamer, whispers Lateef’s future. He’s not the young kid listening for notes on the wind outside of a nightclub. He’s not the unsure player still finding his voice on Detroit stages. As musicologist Ingrid Monson puts it in her essay “Yusef Lateef’s Autophysiopsychic Quest,” “On the flute and oboe, Lateef seemed to be able to inflect his melodies in new directions.”
Saxophone. Flute. Oboe. Eastern. Western. Detroit. New York.
What does it sound like to find yourself? To collect all of the pieces of you and put them into a shape that reflects who you are, reflects your journey? It could sound a lot like Lateef’s 1960 album The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef. Make no mistake, this album is far from the end of his journey, far from the final piece snapped into place. Lateef never stopped learning, never stopped growing. So this album doesn’t represent the whole or everything he would become, but just a fragment of the sound that would ultimately emerge. There’s also something about the album that pulls from both ends of his timeline, the past gently touching the present as it arcs toward the future. He performs “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me,” a Great American Songbook standard that was one of his father’s favorites. A track like “Adoration” only looks forward, a dreamy-sad, wistfully loving Lateef composition where his flute glides alongside Ron Carter’s cello. The instrumentation continues to step outside of the bounds with the addition of pianist Hugh Lawson’s use of the celeste on “From Within,” another Lateef original. There’s a subtlety in the piece, a gentleness, that suddenly makes autophysiopsychic the easiest concept in the world to understand. And the album opener, “Goin’ Home,” almost serves as a reminder that Lateef knows his history, knows the lineage of the music, its bop, its swing. But there is still something in the sounds and in the silences that hints at a wide-open future for the music and the man. This is not a jazz album. This is the years of library study, of sonic experimentation. This is the spirit and the talent intertwining, becoming one another. This is the blues played on an oboe (“Salt Water Blues”) while Herman Wright’s bass notes bend in ways that sound both comfortably familiar and wholly new. This is the steady hand of drummer Lex Humphries giving space for his fellow players on the Joe Zawinul-penned “Lateef Minor 7th,” while leaving just enough for himself so that we can understand the way that each musician’s voice echoes in the others’.
There’s a part in Lateef’s autobiography where he recalls one of the joys of his childhood — flying a kite outside his second-story window in Detroit. The trick, he said, was to “apply the right amount of tension … so that it would bend just enough to catch the wind and not fall apart,” and once it was airborne, “you had to apply just the right amount of tug and jerk to get the kite to soar even higher.” In some ways, this feels like his music. Applying just enough tension to the genre to hold it together while making it soar. Keep adjusting, pulling, stretching and stand back and watch it fly, secure that you won’t break it.
This is not a jazz album.
Ashawnta Jackson is a writer and record collector living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared at NPR Music, Bandcamp, GRAMMY.com, Wax Poetics and Atlas Obscura, among others