At Yusef's Feet, Part 2: The Perfect Pants

We left off talking about Yusef Lateef, jazz pioneer who taught improvisational music at Hampshire College during the same time that I attended, in the late 1980s. Part 1 is here, in case you missed it.

"Yusef Lateef 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 took 25 years."

It has taken a lifetime to absorb some of Yusef's words. I don't remember all the individual moments that went into every Monday night with Yusef, nor do I remember knocking on Andrea's door one Monday afternoon insisting that she join with her flute—she said it changed her life, forever. (Changed someone's life: Check! Ok I can die now.)

I do remember that that class involved lots of sitting—waiting, listening, learning to be attentive—while each member of the group of 12+ people with widely varying levels of musical skill struggled to improvise over simple chord progressions. None of us really knew what we were doing, and Yusef put no limits on the length of individual solos, that I recall. The solos of those who were less self-conscious or who had less regard for what their classmates thought....remember, this is Hampshire, a college designed for people who care little about what other people think... The solos went on and on. And on and on. And on.

This was 1987, and we were Yusef's first class. I don't know if his approach changed in later years, but at that time, he taught us that everything begins with the seventh scale. The seventh scale is a small deviation on the Julie Andrews Do-Re-Mi that you are most familiar with, except that the Ti that is supposed to pull you back with great energy to Do is changed. It is lowered in pitch by a half step. If it were a piano, then instead of a white key for that next-to-last note of the scale, we would play the black one immediately below it. That lowered seventh, which musicians might call "Te," pronouced "tay," creates a scale that seems to have less determined direction. There is no drink with jam and bread with the seventh scale—nothing to (sing it with me) bring... you... back... to.... Do-o-o-o.*

Yusef taught us two scales that year, and two scales only: the seventh scale, and the 12-tone row. Radically different. The seventh scale is the pair of black pants in your wardrobe that goes with everything. The 12-tone row is a combination of any notes you like. It's that really weird hat you just had to have but that goes with absolutely nothing except itself. You may or may not ever wear it, depending on whether you chose to settle in the East Village, New York City or a small coastal New England town. 

Raised in America's Howtown, of course I chose the black pants—the seventh scale—and I spent hours upon hours working with that scale in a little practice room in a lovely little glass-roofed music building in the middle of a former apple orchard. Yusef encouraged us to learn that scale in all keys, in all configurations. He started by asking us to explore all of the triads within that scale, and so I did. Seven notes in the scale then it starts over again at a higher Do .... and...  GO!  1-3-5, 2-4-6, 3-5-7, 4-6-8, 5-7-high-2... etc. All over the instrument, up and down, all keys. Ah, but "now expand," he said in Week Whatever. Now add a half step below the first note of each little group of three (we call that a triad). Now do it by adding the half step below the third instead. Now, how about below the fifth? Or the half step above the first, or the third, or the fifth of the triad. Go.

All keys, all combinations, all notes on your horn... in other words, all waking hours of all days, of all your life, and all your sanity. Says me: "I think I'll transfer to UMass." And so I did (but not for long). As it turned out, that didn't quite work out, because Yusef had changed the way I thought about music.  

More on that in Part 3. Tomorrow, perhaps.

*For Paul Mulvaney only, or other people who appreciate puns (not my husband): "Te," pronounced "tay" only works in Sound of Music scale if you're Irish and pronounce it differently. That was not helpful at all; you're welcome. If you want to know more about solfege, you can click here. But why would you do that? Gross.


PgM3 said…
Ah, you've called me out! And to think that I've been so very much enjoying your blog, so-fa.
Well, seriously, I'm waiting to hear part three! Meanwhile, the story you read to Liam was adorable, more so because the little girl in the story had a six-hole whistle, which are of course common instruments in that part of the world, but even more so yet because she played with birds. Stevey can tell you about the day we played in Lawrence with Timothy Bird, and, I think I've mentioned my morning on the Blue Hill in Maine, at a Nee Ningy Band Mayday, getting out of my tent at early morning twilight to practice and being joined by hundreds of songbirds, all better whistle players than I, of course. And better pilots. But I draw the line on eating bugs.
Hugs to all you guys, to be placed in reserve for a more suitable time. Elizabeth is downstairs practicing, speaking of flute music, as I type. BCNU!