Marking the centenary of a remarkable artist: Virtual UMass program celebrates Yusef Lateef

  • Lateef’s 1987 album “Little Symphony” won a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album, though it was also classified as a mix of jazz and classical. Lateef played all the instruments on the disc.

  • Yusef Lateef, left, with the late saxophonist Von Freeman at Bowker Auditorium at UMass Amherst in 2001. Photo by Ed Cohen/courtesy Glenn Siegel

  • Yusef Lateef in concert, circa 2010. Photo courtesy Adam Rudolph and Glenn Siegel

  • Yusef Lateef, at right, with the late jazz saxophonist Ben Webster, circa 1962. Photo courtesy UMass Library Special Collections

  • Lateef also wrote fiction, co-wrote his autobiography, and made abstract drawings such as this with watercolor, pen, ink and other materials. Image courtesy Glenn Siegel

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 08, 2020

He was, as one longtime fan puts it, a towering figure in music who was also not as well-known as some of his peers: “famous and not famous.”

As Glenn Siegel sees it, Yusef Lateef, who spent almost 30 years in the Valley, was a seminal figure in jazz both as a composer and player, someone who branched out to include many non-western tones and instruments in his music, in turn expanding the boundaries of traditional jazz.

Yet Siegel, the veteran producer of jazz shows in the Valley, notes that Lateef, who died in 2013, didn’t spend as much time on the concert circuit as some of his peers, in part because of his religious beliefs. “In some ways, he was below the radar,” he said.

But Lateef, who lived in Shutesbury, also left a wonderful legacy as a teacher and person, adds Siegel, both in the Valley and elsewhere. And now, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has put together a virtual show that touches on Lateef’s broad legacy — as a musician, writer, visual artist and teacher.

“Yusef Lateef: A Centenary Celebration” opens Oct. 9 with a live virtual concert, with five different musicians doing short, separate performances. The online project will also feature a photo gallery, some film clips of his concerts, displays of his visual artwork, some dramatic readings of his fiction, and videotaped interviews with dozens of musicians, writers, former students, colleagues and others who knew the artist.

Born William Emanuel Huddleston in Tennessee on Oct. 9, 1920, Lateef grew up primarily in Detroit and first made his name as a jazz saxophonist, playing swing with figures such as Dizzy Gillespie. He later studied flute and composition at two different colleges, converted to Islam and changed his name, and added Eastern influences to his music. He earned a doctorate in education at UMass in 1975 and settled in the Valley for good in 1986, teaching music for years at UMass and Hampshire College.

Siegel first met Lateef back in the 1980s when he worked at WMUA-FM, the UMass radio station, and had admired his music before then. He produced a special concert at the university in 2000 for Lateef and some musical friends when Lateef turned 80, and another in 2010 when the veteran musician hit 90.

“He was a huge figure, however you look at it, and he put together a remarkable package of accomplishments,” said Siegel, who interviewed Lateef a number of times at WMUA, notably when Lateef dropped off some of the 80 records he made during his lifetime. “But he was also just a gracious, thoughtful person who could talk to you about any number of subjects.”

He said he had begun thinking last year of hosting some kind of event at UMass in Oct. 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of Lateef’s birth. One idea he discussed with percussionist Adam Rudolph, a friend and bandmate of Lateef, was hosting a large ensemble concert, with perhaps a side event that would reflect some of Lateef’s other artistic interests.

But when the pandemic arrived and the concert had to be scrapped, Siegel says an expanded virtual program became a possibility. “We had an opportunity to pull together a bunch of different things, to really show the scope of what Yusef did, how many people he had an impact on.”

A team effort

Among those involved in pulling together the program are Rudolph, the percussionist; UMass theater scholar Dr. Priscilla Page (she is also Siegel’s partner); Lateef’s widow, Ayesha Lateef; and Jason Robinson, an Amherst College professor of music and a jazz musician and composer.

The program kicks of Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m. with the virtual concert, subtitled “A Sonic Love Letter to Brother Yusef Lateef in Five Movements.” The musicians, who include Rudolph and some former students of Lateef, will offer improvised solo pieces on piano, violin, percussion, reeds and voice.

“We’ve left it pretty open-ended,” said Siegel, who said the musicians have all been inspired by Lateef but will play music of their own creation.

An additional program feature, curated and organized by Page, will include filmed “dramatic readings” from Lateef’s novellas, “Another Avenue” and “Night in the Garden of Love,” and a short story collection, “Spheres.” Those readings will be performed by Five College and UMass Theater alumni, faculty, and students, as well as guest artists Miles Griffith, Mary LaRose, and Fay Victor.

Another focus will be research and continued scholarship on Lateef’s life and creative work, a section of the virtual program that’s been organized by Jason Robinson and Page (new works will be added in coming months, said Siegel).

One of Siegel’s personal highlights is the compilation of (mostly) videotaped interviews he and others in the program have put together with dozens of people who knew and/or worked with Lateef. The short interviews, called “100 Responses to Yusef Lateef,” reveal a man of many dimensions who had a positive impact on a wide range of people, Siegel said.

“It’s been a profound gift to hear how many lives Yusef touched,” he said. “I was struck by how many of his students were inspired by him, in different ways…. In some ways he might have been a bigger influence as a teacher than as a musician.”

He notes that another interviewee in the program, the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins, said “I wish I could be more like Yusef.” Siegel added that Lateef was widely respected as a musician for his versatility: aside from the saxophone and flute, he played oboe and bassoon and a range of non-western instruments such as the bamboo flute, the shehnai and the koto.

Fleshing out the Lateef celebration will be a photo gallery; past interviews with and articles about the artist; films and videotapes of selected performances; and a display of his visual art — drawings on paper that were composed with watercolor, pen, ink, graphite and glitter.

“A recurring theme in his life was his constant search for knowledge” said Siegel. “I think this program is going to show just how far he ranged.”

Free tickets to the launch concert for “A Centennial Celebration of Yusef Lateef” are available at fineartscenter.com/YusefLateef100. For tickets and questions, the FAC box office can also be reached at facbox@umass.edu and by phone at (413) 545-2511 or (800) 999-UMAS.

Steve Pfarrer can be  reached at s pfarrer@gazettenet.com.