At Yusef's Feet: Part 1, Learning How to Be

Yusef Lateef, 1987 Grammy Winner Best New Age Album.
I don't know how it was that Yusef Lateef, the Detroit-born pioneer of jazz, ended up at Hampshire College, the country's weirdest, smallest, most liberal enclave in the country—but then again, I'm not sure how Susan Gedutis, the Plymouth-born daughter of a pickup-driving pool guy, ended up there, either. But I will tell you this: Yusef Lateef changed my life. Yusef Lateef taught me how to "be" in music.

So many thoughts are flooding in right now that I don't think I can do this all in one blog post, nor in one day. So, consider this "At Yusef's Feet, Part 1." I'll start with a little introduction, and then if you don't mind, I'll excuse myself to go practice music. But I'll be back later to tell more, because you know... he is fascinating. Not every story can or should be told in 600 words or less, and even the OED wouldn't be enough for the full story. ("More than 600,000 words, over a thousand years.")

September 1987. I walked in to Hampshire knowing a working-class town's version of jazz. I had not yet heard of my future idols John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, or Jackie McClean. But I had learned the sax solos on George Michael's "Careless Whisper" and Billy Ocean's "Caribbean Queen" by ear, and I owned cassette tapes from Spyro Gyra and Sadao Watanabe. And, I could sing along with every note of every guitar solo on George Benson's greatest hits album. (That turned out to be the intro to the "real thing.") My first concert: George Benson. No doubt because my sister had been dating her college roommate's brother Norman, an American-born Jamaican with impeccable taste in music.

First year at Hampshire, and I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I really had no idea what that meant, in terms of making a living. In fact, I stubbornly resisted any discussion whatsoever of making a living, as I felt that wasn't what I was there for. I was there to learn for learning's sake. Art first. (Ok fine. Whatever.) A year later, it was Yusef who suggested I think differently about that, but I was too young to understand. He was the Jazz Buddha. He said very little, but what he did say was profound and he was not inclined to explain himself. The lesson was there; you learned it when you were ready. For some of us, it only took twenty-five years.

Knowing who Yusef was, as best as anyone can, it makes sense that he chose to work at Hampshire. Hampshire, Non Satis Scire—"to know is not enough."  Where you learn how to learn. Where there are no majors, no tests, and no grades. You explore, you write, you study, and you create. Hampshire made sense for a man who resisted categorization. He said he does not play jazz. Jazz was a dated term, he said, and as a devout Muslim, he did not wish to use the term for its possible sexual and racist connotations.

More important, he felt that the term "jazz" no longer applied to the music he was making. He was still creating improvised music, but no longer had a name for it. That same year, his album Little Symphony won a Grammy in the New Age category. No, he did not go to Hollywood to don a sequined tunic and taqiyah. He was probably home praying instead, and we can guess with confidence that he did not tune in to the Grammys on television, either. He showed up for class the next night, though—the improvisation class with Yusef was every Monday, 5-8—and when we asked him about his award, he simply said he didn't understand the category. What is "New Age," he wanted to know. To him, it was just music.

With that, I will sign off for today. Until next time, here is some "just music," a musical offering Steve and I made last night at sunset. Thank you Yusef for helping to direct this musical sensibility. If you can't see the embed, here's the link.